Coastal states watch California launch its marine reserve network.

Making Waves: Coast Guarded: The 29 reserves will stretch from Pigeon Point past the Peninsula and Carmel Beach to Point Conception in Southern California. —Kera Abraham

Think of it as the ocean counterpart to the string of state parks that runs down Highway 1. On Sept. 21, the state will unveil a corridor of 29 protected marine reserves stretching from Pigeon Point to Point Conception, representing the Central Coast section of a network that will eventually span the state’s 1,100-mile coastline.

It’s been a long time coming – nearly a decade – but it’s a big deal. California, following the recommendations of two major ocean reports, is the first US state to designate a protected marine corridor. If the initiative is viewed as a success, other states might follow suit.

The marine reserves are intended to provide a safe place for sea life to proliferate, although limited fishing is allowed in about half of them. They also offer scientists a chance to study sea life that hasn’t been heavily disturbed by people.

Other protected zones along the coast, such as so-called Areas of Special Biological Significance, are managed by the state’s water control boards and are unrelated to the reserve initiative.

Coastal states – particularly those in the West – are closely watching California’s process. But it could be difficult in those states, where fishing represents a bigger slice of the economic pie. The governors of Oregon and Washington, along with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed the West Coast Agreement on Ocean Health in September 2006, directing their staffs to identify ocean health problems and develop a coordinated response.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has asked his Ocean Policy Advisory Council to establish a network of marine reserves along Oregon’s coast. The council will launch a public nomination process in January 2008. “I have watched with interest as the State of California has worked to create a system of marine protected areas,” Kulongoski wrote in a letter to the council. “I think there is much to learn from California’s experience.”

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, on the other hand, has no plans to establish marine reserves in her state.

California Department of Fish and Game spokeswoman Chamois Andersen hopes that reserves in Oregon and Washington will link up with California’s network “so that ultimately, as the two ocean commissions would like, it would span the entire West Coast.”

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Of course, even the marine reserve network won’t provide a completely pristine environment. It won’t protect ocean resources from pollution, agricultural runoff, invasive species, diseases or global warming. And the reserves only extend as far as state jurisdiction, about 3 nautical miles.

The landmark reserve network also puts pressure on the state to show something for it. Some within the fishing industry have questioned the science used to establish the reserves and complained that fishermen bear too much of the cost.

On the other hand, researchers are confident that marine species will noticeably thrive inside the reserves within five to 10 years. “The ocean is ready to be productive,” said Stanford Marine Science Professor Stephen Palumbi, speaking at a recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference. “If we protect it, it will respond.”


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