Dying oceans get a small reprieve from a state decision.

A Partial Solution:

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The fight over Marine Protected Areas isn’t over, but conservationists won a small victory Tuesday night. When the state Fish and Game Commission put 200 square miles of water off the Central California coast into Marine Protected Areas, it stated its belief that plummeting fish populations can be saved by declaring areas of the ocean off-limits to fishing.

That might seem like a small victory indeed. It may seem obvious that no-fishing zones will help fisheries rebound. But not everyone accepts the idea that over-fishing is to blame for the well-documented decline of sea life, nor the idea that one way to solve the problem is to fence off some areas of the ocean.

“We’ve treated the ocean like a toilet at the same time that we’ve treated it as a boundless bounty.”

Well, most everyone buys these ideas, except for fishermen, who point out—rightly—that none of this has ever been proven.

In fact, the causes for crashing fish populations are many. The state recognizes that fact. Nobody thinks over-fishing is the whole problem or that Marine Protected Areas are the whole solution.

Justifying the law creating Marine Protected Areas, the state begins thusly: “The California State Legislature has found that the marine habitat and biological diversity in the state’s ocean waters are threatened by coastal development, water pollution, and other human activities.” Fishing, in this analysis, is another “human activity,” like washing the car in the driveway, or watering the lawn, or fertilizing and irrigating farmland, or flushing the toilet.

Why should fishermen pay the price, then, when we all go on washing our cars and flushing our toilets?

This isn’t like global warming, where a person has to be nuts to dismiss overwhelming evidence that there’s a problem. But many scientists believe that protecting fisheries is crucial.

Jeremy Jackson, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, has long advocated Marine Protected Areas. He believes science shows that over-fishing is to blame for the decimation of vast numbers of species.

“The ocean is really, really [screwed] up, and people don’t know it,” he told the Weekly in 2003. “If you tell them it is, they immediately think of pollution because it’s easy. But they don’t realize the really insidious thing we’re doing is harvesting it down to the last fish.”

He compared current industrial fishing practices to the slaughtering of buffalo on the America prairie in the 1800s.

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Later that year, the Ocean Conservancy issued a document called Health of the Oceans claiming that over-fishing, more than pollution, is killing the sea. The scientific journal Nature raised the stakes further when it published a study showing that over-fishing by industrial fleets had resulted in the disappearance of 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish, such as tuna and swordfish. But it is undeniable that over the last two decades, technological improvements have turned fishing into vast enterprise that is harvesting fish in unprecedented numbers, and the huge schools of big fish are gone.

Fred Keely, the former state assemblyman who helped write the Marine Life Protection Act, once described current fishing techniques as “serial killing species by species.”

Still, it’s wrong to lay all the blame on fishermen, or to believe that the MPAs are going to restore the health of the ocean by themselves.

The Pew Commission report on the oceans, a huge study overseen by Leon Panetta, found fault with fishing practices, but also reported that 20,000 acres of sensitive coastal wetlands disappear in the US every year, and that 11 million gallons of leaked oil—the equivalent the Exxon Valdez spill—run off America’s streets and eventually into the sea every eight months.

Clearly, some of the most heinous problems at sea are caused by bad habits upstream. The notorious dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was created by farming practices in Montana and Minnesota. And agricultural practices in Monterey County no doubt impact life in the bay. The continuing debate over urban runoff, a cause of much controversy on the Peninsula (as documented in these pages in recent weeks) brings the problem closer to home for most of us—we, and not just the fishermen, are responsible for this mess.

Leon Panetta, who helped spearhead the effort that resulted in this week’s decision, and has traveled the country studying the problem of unhealthy oceans, recognizes the complexity of the threats faces by the nation’s ocean resource.

“We’ve treated it like a toilet,” he said, “at the same time that we’ve treated it as a boundless bounty. What we’re seeing now is the growing danger of collapse of this important system. This is about protecting life itself.”

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