California’s Radical Experiment to Save its Fish

In “The Fisherman’s Dilemma,”  bestselling author Paul Greenberg literally dives into a radical experiment in ocean conservation off California’s coast. He explores the state’s attempt to shutter a portion of its coastal waters and offer a lifeline to its depleted fishery. The story is online today with media partner The California Sunday Magazine and appears in the Sunday, March 1 issue, distributed in print to 400,000 readers.

Scuba diving in the frigid waters off Monterey Bay and sport fishing in southern California, Greenberg investigates a chain of 124 marine protected areas, covering 16 percent of California ocean holdings, which severely restrict or ban fishing. The reserves marked an unprecedented effort in the U.S. to save decimated fish populations, but they also came at a cost to fisherman whose industry severely contracted.

“What makes California’s experiment unique as well as controversial is more than its size,” Greenberg writes. “It’s the ‘network effect’ its proponents think they can achieve. By creating an interconnected stretch of no-fishing areas up and down the coast, scientists and conservationists theorize they can weave back together the elements of an ecosystem that two centuries of exploitation has blown apart.”

Greenberg explains that trouble off the Pacific coast started more than a 100 years ago, when California hunters decimated the sea otter population to supply Chinese royalty with fur coats. Next to go were abalone and sea urchin, dried and packed en masse for sale in Asia, and then sardines. In the early 1980s, when the U.S. dramatically expanded its large-scale fishing fleet, the take quickened, greatly reducing populations of rockfish and other species.

By 2000, the federal government listed the entirety of the West Coast fishery as an economic disaster, mirroring a worldwide trend. “Since the 1970s, the annual global catch has doubled to around 80 million metric tons—the equivalent of the weight of the human population of China,” reports Greenberg.

Proponents of California’s marine reserve system claim that the 15 year-old program is already returning vitality to the sea and could offer a model for fisheries everywhere. Sea otters have repopulated much of the coastline and large schools of once rare fish like copper and yelloweye rockfish can now be seen in abundance in the reserves. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program recently upgraded many West Coast fish off the red “Avoid” list for consumers, as their numbers have climbed.

Critics of the program argue that the data on recovery is still sparse. Cutting off fishing might actually over-concentrate it in unprotected waters, ultimately leading to a net loss in fish, they argue. And fishermen are dwindling. The California fleet has dropped from a high of 8,427 in 1981 to 2,818 in 2011.

Some biologists like Jenn Caselle, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, think that fishermen could benefit from the reserves. “The fish inside the reserves are increasing,” says Caselle. “But here’s the key point. The population of fished species outside the reserves are also increasing—not as fast, but they’re increasing.” Which means the novel plan might be yielding just the results it sought.

Greenberg is the author of the books Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food and American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood.

You can read the full story in The California Sunday Magazine and here on our website. An accompanying infographic also details the development of California’s no-fishing zones.