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Well-Placed Marine Reserves will Boost Ocean Health, Fisheries

While marine reserves that ban fishing are effective tools for easing stress on an ecosystem-- allowing fish stocks to recover from pollution and over-sized fishing hauls--some say they are an unfair burdeon on local populations who depend on marine resources for sustenance or income.

But a panel of top marine scientists speaking at a 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting symposium on 22 February said that efforts to improve marine health and increase fisheries are not opposing goals.

By increasing oceanographic research that can identify the most important areas for the health of marine systems, Steve Gains, dean of Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), said that "fishery managers can design marine reserves that will increase overall ocean health as well as increase catch for fisheries."

Benjamin Halpern, an associate research biologist at UCSB, said that by pinpointing which regions of a marine ecosystem are most important for the overall health, scientists can decrease the total restricted area while increasing the reserve's effectiveness. In the Black Sea, for example, restricting fishing in 25% of the area can improve overall health of the sea by as little as 20%, or as high as 80%.

"The question is all about what areas are going to give you the biggest bang for your conservation buck," said Halpern.

Studying the California Sheepshead fish, UCSB biologist Andrew Rassweiler said that increasing research on ocean currents and marine biology will enable fisheries managers to protect larval dispersal routes, which can increase their population by 10% or more.

Rasweiller explained that Sheepshead larvae hatch close to the coast, and are then swept out to sea. By protecting those area where Sheepshead larvae spawn and hatch, "fisheries can realize a significant gain."

"Better information about dispersal will have you achieve both conservation and fisheries goals, regardless of the value you place on both," said Rassweiler.

Joshua Cinner, senior research fellow at James Cook University in Australia, said that social and economic and social factors related to the marine reserve can influence its effectiveness including: enforcement; local participation in the reserve establishment process; reliance on the reserve for subsistence; and the number of people in the area.

Interestingly, Cinner found that marine reserves in the Caribbean with large human populations living around them did poorly, while the opposite was true in the Indian Ocean. He also found that areas with less poaching and more enforcement, not surprisingly, had successful reserves.

He added that marine reserves that encouraged local participation in the planning process were more likely to be sucessful. "Success has a lot to do with cooperation by the local communities," said Cinner.  

[To learn more, listen to Erik Stokstad's Science Podcast interview Terry Hughes, a coral reef biologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. And read Erik Stokstad's full story in ScienceNow.]