Oregon’s attempt to establish a network of marine reserves—an excellent idea — appears to have sorta belly-flopped. Instead of the 20 marine protected areas proposed by conservationists, the state’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council is recommending just two.

Unfortunately, two does not a network make. That’s a shame because it’s a network of reserves that yields the most meaningful environmental and economic benefits. Networks of reserves, where fishing is prohibited, allow fish stocks to thrive. That’s obviously a benefit for the ocean ecosystem, but it’s also a benefit for the fishing industry. The evidence on this matter is, in fact, pretty solid: setting aside no-fishing areas can actually increase fishing yields. When fish populations have core places to sustain them, they end up being more plentiful both inside and outside the protected areas.

It’s good stuff, or it ought to be. But good ideas can run afoul of bad politics. As the Oregonian editorial board put it:

Marine biologists have convinced environmentalists, politicians, government regulators and newspaper editorial boards. In Oregon, though, scientists have failed to convince the commercial fishing industry and vocal parts of the communities supported by it.

…Oregon communities along the coast, already leery of marine reserves after an earlier such attempt when John Kitzhaber was governor, became inflamed with opposition to Kulongoski’s idea during months of public discussion of it.

It really may be that is was mainly a batch of especially vocal and influential folks who weren’t convinced. 

  • A November 2007 public opinion poll by Grove Insight found that 70 percent of Oregonians, and 58 percent of coastal communities, support marine reserves. Another poll from July 2008 again found 70 percent support across the state and 67 percent support along the coast.

    A bummed-out editorial in the Eugene Register-Guard lays out what should happen next:

    …the most realistic option for Kulongoski is to accept the council’s recommendations and to strive in what promises to be a highly problematic budgetary environment to find the funding for enforcement, as well as the monitoring and research, of the pilot reserve system.

    But the governor also must make clear that the establishment of two tiny reserves is insufficient to restore Oregon’s ocean abundance. While such modest set-asides might benefit a few species, such as mussels and octopus that stay near one spot, others move in areas much larger than the proposed protected areas. Ultimately, there needs to be a string of strategically clustered reserves or broader swath of “marine protected areas,” where only limited fishing is allowed, to protect species such as yelloweye, canary and the heavily fished black rockfish.

    Kulongoski should consult closely with ocean scientists, the Ocean Policy Advisory Council, the fishing industry and coastal communities and identify at least half a dozen or more areas that could be established as marine reserves within the next two to three years. That would require additional resources for mapping, scientific analysis, public feedback and other essential groundwork. If the Legislature can’t find the necessary funding, the governor should consider following the lead of counterparts in California and other states and create a public- ­private partnership with private foundations and other groups.

    There’s some hope for this idea, I think. While the Advisory Council recommends establishing only two reserves, they also suggest that four other places go forward “for futher study.” Precisely what “further study” means is unclear, and no timeline is suggested, but it’s an opening that Governor Kulongoski should exploit.

    It’s unfortunate, and a little odd, that a state as far-sighted as Oregon is actually the West Coast laggard on marine protection. It will be interesting to see if Kulongoski can do for the Oregon’s ocean what Tom McCall did for Oregon’s land.