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Real-Life Frogger: How To Navigate From MPA to MPA

Spending my days drifting lazily among the kelp forests below the USC Wrigley Institute dock, I’m disturbed only by the occasional curious snorkeler with a camera, but mostly I concentrate on the abundant small fish, plankton, and crustaceans to lunch on. I’ve spent the last few decades reveling in this luxury, although I hear that my cousins a hop and a skip across the pond don’t have it this easy. Huge ships, ruthless “recreational” fishermen, and pesky chemicals plague their daily lives; if only they could join in on the party brewing in the marine reserve around, ironically named, Big Fisherman’s Cove. I’m a kelp bass (Paralabrax clathratus), one of many fish protected under human regulations. Scientists are constantly debating on the ability of our kind to make the journey between marine protected areas (MPAs), so I’ve come up with a sort of guide to help a fellow kelp bass out.

Suppose a fish not unlike myself is living in Abalone Cove, just off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. It’s not a bad place to live -- with its designation as a State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA), there’s plenty to eat and no worries about getting snatched up by a fisherman, since humans can’t interfere. However, while exploring around his habitat for food, this kelp bass finds itself in the Port of LA, when he might have wanted to venture to the next MPA, which is out here on Catalina Island. Shipping lanes aren’t marked with a clear schedule underwater (as if we could read it and radio for help), oil platforms make noises loud enough to rival an elephant seal fight, and sediments from years of runoff pollution muck up the water, making it difficult to see 5 feet in front of him. He may mistake a distant whale for a little fish to ask for directions, although no amount of interpreting whale calls will get him the results afforded to Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo. No, he will have to navigate the 20+ miles across the San Pedro Channel almost blindly. It will be a journey, but not entirely impossible -- kelp bass can swim distances of up to 50 miles in depths up to 150 feet, meaning that in order for MPAs to be more effective, they need to encompass more area so that kelp bass don’t wander out of the sanctuary so easily. This could also be an argument for the effectiveness of the current MPA designations, since kelp bass can technically swim between the various areas, although if they think we can navigate to a targeted few square miles of an MPA through the anthropogenic and natural perils afforded by the San Pedro Channel, they are sorely mistaken. Fish know no boundaries, especially relatively arbitrary designations created by humans. Nothing is stopping a kelp bass from wandering out of the protection of an MPA and right into the net of an eagerly awaiting fisherman just outside of the MPA.

Unless a kelp bass is over 12 inches, it is fair game for recreational fishermen in areas that are not MPAs. Since this is the case, very few kelp bass make it past the 12 inch mark, since they are eaten before they reach that maturity. Kelp bass grow very slowly and the oldest recorded kelp bass was 34 years old. This is all the more reason to be wary of fishermen -- a kelp bass is most likely a fair catch, and a tasty one at that.

There are few solutions to this predicament, other than to extend MPAs to encompass more area, therefore reducing the possibility of too many fish wandering outside of the protected zone due to their natural patterns. Even though some fish are needed to replenish the populations outside of the MPAs, if too many fish wander out, the MPA is not effective at protecting large and established populations. Establishing MPA boundaries is a balancing act between economic and environmental interests, however, if enough of the ocean isn’t protected, human and marine life has the potential to be greatly compromised.


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