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Happy Fish, Happy People: Keeping Marine Ecosystems Healthy Comes Full Circle

As I’ve lived my whole life on the coast, seeing marine life a stone’s throw away from the shore is no surprise to me, in fact, I’ve come to expect it. The plethora of wildlife that I take for granted would not be there if not for the various environmental regulations imposed by authorities such as (on the federal level) the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, and the National Park Service Organic Act, among many others. Over-fishing and water pollution are major contributors to the decline of marine biodiversity; one way these effects can be stifled is with the installation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA).

A prime example of a successful MPA is on Catalina Island, CA around the USC Wrigley Institute For Environmental Studies. In my short time here, the quantity and diversity of marine life that I’ve seen while snorkeling is unparalleled -- where else can one stumble upon 30+ enormous bat rays and leopard sharks practically on top of each other on the sandy bottom just off the shore? For anyone witnessing this firsthand, it can be hard to fathom that the effectiveness of MPAs is being questioned within the scientific community. Granted, the impact on intertidal zones rather than areas beyond the littoral zone garners more concern, however, it is applicable to all MPAs’ regions. An exemplary concern is the act of illegally harvesting prohibited species in easily accessible zones. This undermines the intentions of the MPAs, as the restrictions on harvesting species and disturbing marine species and habitats are in place to protect healthy biodiversity from human influences. To read more about the value of MPAs, click here.

In a MPA, certain restrictions for pollution, interaction, and harvesting are imposed in order to preserve the natural marine habitat. For example, around Catalina Island, boats are not allowed to drop anchor, the harvest of shellfish is prohibited, and only certain coastal pelagic species are available for harvest, among countless other regulations regarding pollution. In addition, there are regulations on land uses, as certain practices in maintaining soil health can impact nearby marine ecosystems. Nitrogen fixation and denitrification are issues normally associated with soil and agriculture, however, runoff from excessive fertilization can offset the natural balance in an ecosystem (in this case, a marine ecosystem). This can indirectly lead to nutrient pollution and/or dead zones, which marine ecosystems are protected against when they become MPAs. Also in the case of the Wrigley Institute on Catalina, certain herbicides cannot be used on invasive species such as fennel, since the runoff would eventually make its way to the MPA and contaminate it. This type of marine conservation is one of the more effective methods, as it is preventative rather than restorative (after the damage has been done). For example, it is infinitely better for an oil spill to be prevented than even the best, least intrusive clean-up of an oil spill. Similarly, it is easier to protect biodiversity and pristine habitats than to try to recreate them after allowing ecosystem decay due to anthropogenic influences.

As with any ecosystem, humans are as much a part of it as any other organisms. Not only can we negatively influence it with pollution and overuse, or positively influence it (or at least protect it from our own harmful ways) with protection laws, but the ecosystem can affect us accordingly with its overall health. Climate change is inevitably a factor in the health of an ecosystem, and its impact on MPAs is a factor in their effectiveness. Climate change is both influenced by humans and can influence human activities; it exemplifies the “full circle” relationship that we have with our surrounding ecosystems. In establishing more MPAs and similar programs, humans will benefit because healthy ecosystems are more efficient and preserve more natural biodiversity, slowing the growing effects of anthropogenic influences on the world, one reserve at a time. Although the trade-off for a clean, healthy MPA involves relinquishing economic benefits and coastal transportation conveniences, it is worth it. With a growing population and increasing anthropogenic influences on the environment in our future, MPAs are an essential part of preserving biodiversity and healthy marine ecosystems for years to come.

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