Marine protected areas (MPAs) in the United States exist to preserve our nation’s marine resources for this and future generations. About 26 percent of US marine waters are protected in some kind of MPA, defined in Executive Order 13158 (signed by President William J. Clinton) as “any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.” A few MPAs known as marine reserves or no-take MPAs (amounting to about 3 percent of US waters) do not allow hunting, fishing, or collecting. The purpose of these no-take MPAs, which include marine national monuments, is to sustain fisheries and allow ecosystems to recover from environmental stressors.
As a class, commercial fishermen have great antipathy toward MPAs and downright hate no-take MPAs. Commercial fishing interests generally believe they are of overregulated (a hard case to make with 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks fully or overfished, with prospects to get worse). But the truth is that numerous no-take MPAs are in the best interests of commercial fishermen.
Commercial Fishing Opposition to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts
As marine national monuments go, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts (NEC&S) Marine National Monument proclaimed by President Obama in 2016 is rather puny (see Table 1). Yes, it’s comparable to the size of Connecticut, but Connecticut, after all, is the forty-eighth largest state. President Obama generally went big with marine national monuments before he went home, but not in this case. Why not? Yes, the United States Exclusive Economic Zone in the Atlantic is smaller than in the Pacific, but the puny size is due to opposition from commercial fishing interests.
According to Scott Kraus, vice-president and senior science advisor at the Anderson-Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston, the marine national monument proposal was initially much larger but was pared back to accommodate this fishing interest or that. Even after all the paring back, under the terms of the marine national monument, crab and lobster fishing can continue under existing permits for seven years.
In March 2017, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a case on behalf of five commercial fishing industry groups challenging President Obama’s designation of NEC&S on the grounds that it has harmed or will harm their business interests.
The Truth about MPAs and Commercial Fishing
While it is perhaps counterintuitive (“contrary to common sense, because sometimes common sense makes no sense”), more no-take MPAs would not only conserve and renew ocean resources for the benefit of this and future generations but also provide more and larger fish to commercial fishers.
Scientific research on no-take MPAs is abundant and consistent (see, for example, the science briefs from the National Marine Protected Areas Center entitled “Do ‘No-Take’ Marine Reserves Benefit Adjacent Fisheries?” and “Do Fish Swim Out of Marine Protected Areas?” and their “Key Findings from Fisheries Research”), and therefore compelling. No-take MPAs result in more and larger fish being taken outside of MPAs. This is because inside no-take MPAs, fish and other species are generally both more abundant and larger. Larger specimens have more young. When larger and more abundant fish move outside no-take MPAs, the fishing is better.
MPAs also, according to the Atlas of Marine Protection (an initiative of the Marine Conservation Institute), provide many ecosystem (and therefore economic) benefits:
• Fish biomass, abundance and diversity increases in MPAs.
• MPAs protect from climate change effects such as natural disasters and coral disease.
• MPAs provide a big boost to ocean economies.
To be scientifically credible, ecologically viable, and economically optimal, any fisheries management plan needs to include marine protected areas, especially no-take marine protected areas.