California's Marine Protection Law Sets High Bar

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A new law to establish Marine Protected Areas along the California coast just went into effect. No other state in the nation comes close to matching the scope of this ambitious project — and now everyone is watching California to see if, and how, this marine protection works.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

California is creating refugees for marine life along its coast. It's an ambitious project, the largest of its kind in the United States involving hundreds of square miles of coastal waters. Now, comes the task of trying to prove that it works.

David Gorn reports from the middle of Monterey Bay.

(Soundbite of waves off the central coast of California)

DAVID GORN: These waters off the central coast of California are the largest protected area for marine life in the nation and outside of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world.

Professor STEPHEN PALUMBI (Marine Biologist, Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station): We're standing on China Point, which sticks out into the Monterey Bay. It's close enough to the Pacific Ocean so that the waves raft around and really smack it.

GORN: That's Stanford marine biologist, Steve Palumbi. One-fourth of the California coastline, he says, the entire central coast area makes up the first phase of the project. Now, the state isn't trying to protect the whole ocean here. Instead, it has picked out pockets of the richest marine life and restricted them from fishing. The idea is to set up little fish nurseries up and down the coast. In all, more than 200 square miles of ocean has been set aside and that's just the start. California expects to expand the program in three additional phases to cover the entire California coast by 2011. That kind of protection, says Palumbi, is long over due.

Prof. PALUMBI: It's a relatively simple solution to what is otherwise a really horrific problem, that is, the health of the ocean and the health of the life in the ocean is something that is being stressed by all kinds of things by pollution, by development, by global climate change, by overfishing. All of these things build up to the point where in a lot of places, the ocean ecosystem has collapsed.

GORN: Ah, but here's the rub. To keep the project going, the state needs to prove the thing's working. It needs to see that there are actually more fish in the water because of these protected zones. But it's not so easy to catalogue sea life in 200 square miles of open water. Fish move. The ocean is big. But still, the ultimate success of this project all comes down to counting fish.

It's about eight a.m. on a dark autumn morning on the University of California research vessel, Paragon, off the coast of Santa Cruz. Four crew members are getting ready to dive, their air tanks banging against the heavy gear. They pour hot water into their wet suits to fight off the chill of changing.

(Soundbite of divers preparing to dive)

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: Yup.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

GORN: Divers go in teams of two, one halfway down and one near the bottom. They measure a water alleyway, two-meters wide and two-meters tall, 150-meters long, counting the fish, the invertebrates, and other life in that sample area, says boat captain Dave Benet(ph).

Mr. DAVE BENET (Boat captain): The restructure is really different. It's really flat reef. There's this kind of long staircases and there'll be no fish or hardly any life and then you'll hit some of these ledges and (unintelligible).

GORN: These meticulous surveys take three to five months and will be done in the exact same spots every year to mark the ocean's progress. According to Mark Carr, the UC Santa Cruz biologist in charge of counting the fish, the state is hoping to follow the town of Monterey's lead. Years ago, Carr says, a small section of Monterey Bay was protected and over time, its blush marine life has helped the larger area of Monterey Bay recover. On a tiny scale, says Carr, that's exactly the kind of success the state is hoping will happen all up and down the coastline of California.

Mr. MARK CARR (Biologist, University of California, Santa Cruz): There's no doubt that the MPA process in California is unprecedented. And certainly, throughout the country, as well as internationally, everybody's looking at this process big time. Big time.

GORN: In particular, officials in Oregon, Washington, and Massachusetts are watching how California is running its program and what kind of results it can produce and the success or failure of this monumental landmark effort looks like it's going to be measured fish by fish one dive at a time.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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