California Nets a Future for Fish

As a marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, I’ve been diving all over the world – from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to remote Pacific islands. But one of my most memorable dives took place just south of here in Cabo Pulmo National Park in Baja California, Mexico. I dove there for the first time in 1999, and while the corals were nice, I wasn’t impressed with the number of fish I saw. I returned to the area 10 years later – a decade after the villagers of Cabo Pulmo had established a no-take reserve hoping to restore depleted fisheries.

What I saw on my return trip was unbelievable: thousands upon thousands of large fishes such as snappers, groupers and manta rays. I saw more sharks in that one dive than I have in 10 years of diving in the Gulf of California. Our scientific research confirmed what I was able to see with my own eyes: fish biomass, or size and quantity, increased more than four-fold with a decade of protection.

Cabo Pulmo Marine Park has exhibited a spectacular recovery of marine life within a decade. Photo: Octavio Aburto

Here in California, state leaders have just completed a bold effort that will reap similar benefits in the decades to come. A June 6 decision to implement marine protected areas in northern California establishes the final piece of the state’s network of marine protected areas spanning the length of its 1,100-mile coast. This network includes ecological hot spots like the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes, Monterey Bay and La Jolla reef. A pilot system of ocean protected areas established at the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast in 2003 is already resulting in more and bigger lobsters and healthier kelp forests.

Over time, the rewards will continue to multiply. And not just for the fish. Marine protected areas are great for kayakers, divers, bird-watchers, surfers and for fishermen. By protecting areas that fish, sea otters, birds and other ocean wildlife need to feed and breed, sea life can recover. And because fish don’t understand boundary lines, fishermen working in nearby waters reap the benefits too. They are able to catch more and bigger fish than in areas that don’t neighbor reserves.

Let me put it into economic terms: We have historically treated the ocean like a debit account where we keep making withdrawals and never make a deposit. Marine protected areas convert key areas of the ocean into savings accounts. By safeguarding the principal, these areas provide returns for us in terms of social, economic and ecological benefits. And because bigger, older fish have more babies, providing refuge for some of these “big mommas” allows us to reap the benefits of compound interest.

In recent years, I’ve worked to help create more of these “fish banks” off Chile, Costa Rica, Belize and the United States. No matter where these areas are located geographically, they provide similar results. Scientific studies on marine protected areas around the world show increases in biodiversity, size and quantity of fish – and job creation and increased economic revenue for local ocean users. Creating marine protected areas requires a new model of partnership, a truly collaborative effort. In California, conservationists, commercial and recreational fishermen, divers and others came together to design the new protections, guided by the advice of top scientists. Thanks to them, Californians will benefit for generations to come because keeping the ocean healthy and bountiful is in everyone’s best interest. You can bank on it.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.