Protecting The Ocean - Editorial

Ocean sanctuaries where marine activities are limited or prohibited altogether were in the news a dozen years ago, when marine protected areas were established off the coasts of California and Hawaii. A little later the idea received a cool reception on the East Coast when a new management plan was written for Stellwagen Bank. Fishermen, both commercial and recreational, vehemently objected to any talk of limiting fishing on Stellwagen.

Shortly after, those interests and others weakened the state’s new Ocean Resources Management Act, reducing a potentially useful oceans protection tool to a never-ending study. Good will eventually come of the act, but it will be a long time before we see any visible results.

This summer a small group on Martha’s Vineyard is taking up an effort to establish marine sanctuaries south of the island. With a span of years between past protests and this renewed effort, it will be interesting to see what sort of reaction the proposal elicits.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who founded Mission Blue, a nonprofit organization created to establish marine protected areas around the world, is leading the effort on the island. She told the Vineyard Gazette that she brought the project to the island because of its long tradition of a working waterfront. Her group includes several commercial fishermen and a Chilmark selectman who has long been an advocate for commercial fishermen.

The group is considering an area west of Gay Head, another south of the Vineyard and a third south of Nantucket. In the coming year, Mission Blue scientists will thoroughly survey each area. A team of divers will make up to 20 dives on each area, taking photos and video for an up-close look at the quality of the habitat.

While Vineyard fishermen support the project, the group expects opposition from commercial fishermen. There is no intention, however, to prohibit recreational fishermen from fishing the protected areas. It is the commercial trawlers who are cause for concern.

In the span of only a decade it has become clear to scientists and many fisheries managers that simply cutting the number of fish harvested will not protect certain species of groundfish. Protecting spawning areas and habitat for the entire food chain is also necessary.

Marine protected areas or ocean sanctuaries are really the only way to do that. It just might be that is widely enough recognized and Dr. Earle and Mission Blue will be successful in their island effort.

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