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Five steps forward for ocean protection
by Karen Garrison
Friday Dec 23rd, 2011 9:47 AM
World peace remains elusive, yet as 2011 draws to a close, I’m heartened by the terrific progress California has made toward restoring the bounty of our seas and the marine habitats that keep visitors coming to the golden state’s magnificent coastlines. I’ve watched Californians of all ages, from all walks of life, embrace the spirit of cooperation and take collective action to keep our slice of the Pacific Ocean healthy in small ways and large. Here are my top five examples (in no particular order):
1. South Coast Underwater Parks Added to Statewide Network
South coast protected areas received final approval in December, so New Years 2012 will be particularly sweet. It will ring in new and badly needed protections through the Marine Life Protection Act for south coast Yosemites of the sea, like the ancient submarine canyon near Point Dume, treasured tidepools at Laguna Beach and lush kelp forests at South La Jolla. Teams of researchers, divers, fishermen, and citizen-scientists in places like Santa Barbara and Malibu are already at work monitoring the beaches, shores, kelp beds and deep waters off the south coast to give us a picture of current ocean health and uses, and a yardstick for future changes.

2. Ocean Conservation and Tribal Culture in Harmony in the North Coast
On the north coast, conservationists, fishermen, divers and tribal communities created the state’s first unified community proposal under the MLPA, a plan that incorporates traditional marine gathering by the region’s tribal communities thanks to leadership from local residents and Resources Secretary John Laird. Hawk Rosales of the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council wrote in the Sacramento Bee that native people will “celebrate this significant progress and will stay focused on building a brighter future – for tribes and for California.”

3. Marine Protected Areas Go Digital
New tools unveiled this year have made it easier than ever to find the boundaries and rules of protected areas. The National Marine Protected Areas Center unveiled an interactive mapshowing the locations of all the areas in the nationwide MPA system. Not to be outdone, California’s Department of Fish and Game launched a new mobile website this fall, featuring a comprehensive, interactive map of all California’s marine protected areas and a GPS plotter that allows you to track your location relative to the underwater parks.

4. Sharks Fin Ban Enacted
Over the past 50 years, humans have caught about 90% of the world’s sharks, and with demand for shark fin soup growing, there’s little relief in sight for the ocean’s apex predator. But in a big victory for sharks, Governor Brown signed a bill banning the sale, trade and possession of fins in the state, and California joined Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Toronto in taking a decisive step to help protect these vulnerable and vital animals.

5. Protection Pays Off: Underwater Parks in Action
Finally, 2011 showed us the benefits that can come from protecting ocean ecosystems. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve—in my own backyard near Half Moon Bay—attracted 133,000 visitors in 2011, up a third from before this reef received full protection. And looking south to Baja California, Mexico's Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park inspires hope: a Scripps report showed the number of fish in the reserve soared 460% over the past decade, indicating that this once depleted jewel of the Sea of Cortez has recovered. I vacationed in Cabo Pulmo in early November to see for myself, and found dense thunderclouds of jacks, schools of snapper, big old golden and leopard grouper, and an immense variety of other creatures. These very fish are disappearing in other parts of their range. But fish, fishing and tourism now thrive at Cabo Pulmo.

As we dive into a new year, huge challenges remain if we are to protect our oceans for future generations. Overfishing is an even bigger problem in the high seas and in other countries’ waters than in our own. Industrial uses are growing in the ocean, causing conflicts and risking damage to fragile habitats. A changing climate is altering the chemistry and biology of our waters. So California really deserves kudos for investing in a healthier future for our oceans –despite the mounting odds. Here’s a toast to our life-sustaining oceans, to California’s leadership, and to more progress in 2012.