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Balancing act: How UC Davis contributes to nation’s largest marine protected area network

UC Davis researchers want to understand how fish benefit from Marine Protected Areas. Credit: Rennet Stowe (via Flickr)

UC Davis researchers study how fish benefit from Marine Protected Areas. Credit: Rennet Stowe (via Flickr)

If one were to set aside an area of the ocean that was off limits for fishing, how would that affect the population of, say, abalone, rockfish or some other fish species? How much catch would be lost or gained if certain areas were closed to fishing? And is there a way to balance conservation goals with the economic benefits or losses?

These were the sorts of questions UC Davis professor Louis Botsford and former UC Davis postdoc J. Wilson White sought to answer as they developed new mathematical models to calculate the expected consequences — both to marine life and to the economy — of proposed marine protected areas in California.

They were two of several scientists from a variety of institutions and agencies whose expertise helped inform the California Fish and Game Commission in its completion this past December of the nation’s first statewide coastal system of marine protected areas (MPAs).

Twelve years in the making, the network of marine parks became the largest expansion of California marine sanctuaries in 20 years. Its creation fulfilled a mandate from the state’s 1999 Marine Life Protection Act.

The new network of 124 designated areas guarantees that 16 percent of state waters (848 square miles) are permanently protected, 9 percent of which are “no-take” areas that are off limits to fishing. The previous MPA network covered just 2.7 percent of state waters, with less than 0.25 percent designated as no-take areas.

Overhauling California’s marine protected area network was a long, contentious, at times emotional, and complex process that involved multiple stakeholders, managing agencies, scientists and members of the public. Lessons learned from the process are highlighted in a March special issue of the journal Ocean and Coastal Management, recently made available for free download at the journal website. The nine articles include a paper by White and co-author Botsford, and were written by members of the MLPA Initiative, a public-private partnership established to help California implement the Marine Life Protection Act.

“The UC Davis contribution was a way of synthesizing what we know about marine biology and what we know about economics into a single framework to show the tradeoff between achieving conservation goals and economic goals,” said White, now an assistant professor of biology and marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Past MPAs were designed to meet biological and ecological objectives, with economic effects typically evaluated only after MPAs have been established, the paper said.

“It’s always a balancing act,” said Botsford, from the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology. “You want to get a high yield out of the fishery, yet you want the fishery to continue to be sustained. Those two things are often working at cross-purposes, and you have to decide the balance. I don’t think the new network of marine protected areas went inordinately in an unbalanced direction.”

Monitoring is currently underway to see how species are responding to the newly implemented network. Botsford, White and UC Davis Environmental Science and Policy professors Alan Hastings and Marissa Baskett are currently determining how best to detect the responses, and how long that will take.

“Over the next 10 years or so, we will see what the consequences of these marine protected areas are,” Botsford said. “Presumably, we’ll continue to manage them and change the configurations of them if that needs to be done.”

Contributed by Kat Kerlin, University Communications

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