Are We Properly Caring for Our Ocean-Based National Parks?

Are we properly caring for our ocean-based parks? Biscayne National Park, NPS photo.

There was an essay recently that brought to my attention a startling figure: Even though there are nearly 1,700 marine protected areas in U.S. territorial waters, 99.9 percent of all our territorial waters were open to fishing in 2008.

Ninety-nine-point-nine percent. It's a staggering percentage that boggles the mind, particularly when you read reports tracking not just the decline but the collapse of ocean fisheries. It's a percentage that raises many questions. One specific to our National Park System is whether the National Park Service is properly watching over the fisheries that exist within the system.

When we talk about issues that confront the parks, we often hear about development pressing on the parks, about genetic bottlenecks, about time-worn facilities that too long have gone without needed repairs. Poaching issues arise at times, as do the battles against marijuana plantations, and the encroachment of invasive, non-native species that, left unchecked, could overturn long-accepted ecological paradigms.

Not quite as often do we hear someone express concern over the pressures being exerted on the fisheries that fall within the 75 ocean-based parks. Places like Biscayne National Park, which is 95 percent underwater, or Dry Tortugas National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Channel Islands National Park, or the 10 national seashores.

Gary E. Davis, who recently retired from the Park Service after a long and distinguished career as a marine scientist, most recently raised those concerns in an essay he wrote for the George Wright Forum's NPS Centennial Essay Series.

The apparent de facto, unstated, hypothesis for ocean parks seems to have been that protecting habitats and water quality would be sufficient to mitigate the negative effects of fishing mortality and leave exploited populations and ecosystems unimpaired, he writes. That hypothesis is falsified repeatedly in virtually every National Park System unit in which it has been examined. In light of this new information, it is time to re-evaluate the assumptions of sustainable fishing and unimpaired ocean wild life in national parks.

Mr. Davis's call for action comes at a good time, as the Obama administration so far as demonstrated a disdain for the environmental practices of the Bush administration. Too, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has proclaimed that science will be well-respected by the new administration when it comes to management of our public lands. And, presumably, our public waters.

In his essay, Designing Ocean Parks for the Next Century, Mr. Davis issues a clarion call for the National Park Service to extend to its ocean-based units the same management mandates that its land-based units long have enjoyed.

Placed-based conservation in the ocean lags a century behind similar endeavors on land. Establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the passage of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act a century later in 1972 provide emblematic mileposts. As a consequence of this circumstances, wild life in ocean parks has been neglected and abused. It is high time to close that land-sea gap, especially as we envision the future of national parks in another century of NPS stewardship. To achieve the vision of the (National Park Service) Organic Act, wild life in ocean parks must be fully protected.

This is only the most recent call for better stewardship of the National Park System's watery realms. In 2004 the National Parks Conservation Association placed Biscayne National Park on its annual list of the Ten Most Endangered National Parks.

At Biscayne, the NPCA pointed out, “Important fish and coral populations are threatened by overfishing, destructive use, and pollution [and] sensitive coastline slated for wetlands restoration is being developed, impeding the restoration of the fresh water flows necessary to restore the estuary.”

A more recent (2006) NPCA assessment of Biscayne gave the park a score of just 58 out of 100 (“poor”) for natural resources condition and only 48 for cultural resources.

Last summer the Ocean Conservancy released a report that said, in part, that overly permissive recreational and fishing policies endorsed by the Park Service have brought the park's unique coral reefs to a state of "imminent" collapse.

"Biscayne National Park once had some of the most spectacular coral reefs in Florida. The native communities they support desperately need our immediate action," David White, director of Ocean conservancy’s Southeastern regional office in St. Petersburg, Florida, said when the report was issued.

"Science shows that the hands-off approach that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Park Service have taken over the years is undermining efforts to restore vital and fragile reef ecosystems in Biscayne National Park. How much longer will they stand by and do nothing to protect these resources?"

Problems extend beyond Biscayne, unfortunately, as Mr. Davis points out.

Patterns of fishery over-exploitation, serial depletion, and cascading ecosystem shifts are not limited to warm-water parks. Giant kelp forests dominate the cool waters of Channel Islands National Park, off California’s southern coast.Often described as rainforests in the sea, these highly productive communities are home to more than 1,000 species. When the park was expanded in 1980 from the 1938 national monument boundaries, it was widely recognized as the last, best place in the region to fish and to see wild life. The park was at the core of California’s most valuable fisheries, including abalone, spiny lobster, red sea urchin, market squid, and a wide variety of fin fish, including more than 50 species of rockfish (Scorpaenidae), California sheephead, and lingcod. After more than 20 years of national park protection, 80% of the kelp forest was gone; all five abalone fisheries had collapsed serially, with one species (Haliotis sorenseni) now on the federal endangered species list; and several rockfish fisheries were closed to prevent population collapses.

In his essay, which is attached below, Mr. Davis proposes that the National Park Service, in preparation for its centennial in 2016, see that its ocean-based units are "well-managed, fully protected ... with spectacular features as iconic as those of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite;" that wild life in these parks are "as pristine as it was before the Industrial Revolution,"; that the Park Service manage wilderness in its ocean-based units in such a way that "inspires people to be better stewards of nature," and; that the ocean-based units are recognized and managed as "living laboratories teaching people about nature and how to improve human health and well-being."

Those are some lofty goals, no? Perhaps. But, as Mr. Davis points out, they are "rapidly slipping through our collective fingers, and windows of opportunity are closing."

Now, the Bush administration did take a significant and substantial step in that direction when it established in 2006 the 89.5-million-acre Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

But more work needs to be done. And if it is done, the ecosystems likely will respond. In his essay, Mr. Davis notes that when measures were instituted at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to protect fisheries, "in two years trout numbers ... went up 36-65%, yet did not change in nearby fished zones." Fisheries at Dry Tortugas and Channel Islands also have responded positively, and quickly, once no-take regulations were implemented, he adds.

But extending such protections throughout the park system's ocean-based units will require a decided mindset.

Today, we labor under a tyranny of diluted words and euphemisms. Special places labeled "national parks,” “sanctuaries,” and “refuges” do not offer protection, sanctuary, or refuge for wild life. We describe taking and exploitation of ocean park wild life as “harvest” as if a crop were planted, tended, and gathered. Fish killed and removed from parks are labeled “landings,” and fish taken from the sea become "yield” as if they were interest on an investment we made. We must acknowledge we are at the end of millennia of human “hunting and gathering” in the sea, and begin to recognize that the future is one of stewardship in which we invest, tend, and care for wild life in the sea. Those special places we recognize as critical to preserving our shared ocean heritage should be first among equals.

Read the essay.


I think it’s quite telling, and affirmative of Mr. Davis’ thoughts, that after a couple days there are no comments here. The natural world below the surface of the water is truly out-of-sight, out-of-mind, even to many otherwise enlightened defenders of the environment. I can’t say I wouldn’t be in the same trap, saving the fact that my day job is farming corals for the commercial aquarium trade and research purposes. I recently spoke to a group of zoology students at Michigan State about my work in modeling reef trophic structure in closed systems. Of about 60 students, three had any interest in aquatic systems. My slide comparing feeding of corals to feeding of better-known animals like elephants was the only thing that perked anyone up. We need to find a way to make Acropora charismatic…

Comparing fishing in a marine park to fishing in a terrestrial park is apples and oranges. Fish account for most of the biomass in several key tropic niches in aquatic ecosystems (reefs in particular). Allowing fishing in marine parks is more akin to allowing virtually unregulated hunting of megafauna in Yellowstone or logging in Olympic. You’re taking a sledgehammer the foundation of the whole system.

That said, there’s more to coral reef decline in the tropical West Atlantic than overfishing. As Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll once said of one of his players, “His problems are great – and they are many.” The cascading effect of the lack of fish carnivory and herbivory alluded to in the essay is certainly solid science, though it is one of those things that sometimes stretches the belief of the lay person unfamiliar with the interconnectedness of ecosystems. A similar and more direct blow to TWA reefs in the last two decades has been the loss of Diadema sea urchins. Nearly all of the urchins succumbed to a mysterious ailment, completely emptying a critical grazing niche. This has been devastating. On a macro-environmental scale we have the oft-cited effects of ocean warming, but a much more sinister threat is posed by ocean acidification. A guy that worked for me as an undergrad is among those researching this now. To make an really long and complicated story short, simple, and depressing, it’s unlikely ocean acidification can be artificially reversed at this point. That means that within 50 years, reefs as we know them aren’t going to exist. As the primary method of calcium carbonate deposition trends toward a calcitic system rather than aragonitic, reef-building corals will cease to build reefs. This has happened time after time since the Ordovician period. You can argue about whether it’s anthropogenic, but it’s clear that it’s happening. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do everything we can to preserve reef ecosystems. The NPS allowing continued heavy fish harvests is like having the paramedics break your knees while treating you for a heart attack. But, I can’t say that the NPS are the medics I’d choose to call in when I had an ecosystem in critical condition. It just so happens they’ve been entrusted with some of our best marine habitats.

This all boils down to education. I’m trying to do my part here, but it’s a tough sell. What gets folks excited at aquariums? Sharks. Is there a Reef Week on TV? No, it’s Shark Week. Sadly, the best infiltration into the minds of the impressionable lately has been Finding Nemo. That’s a start, but we desperately need to get kids thinking about what lies beneath surface – other than the toothed megafauna.

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

First, let me note that protection of marine resources has historically been substantially undervalued. Nevertheless, I have a couple quibbles with the above article.

For one, the 99.9% figure includes both commercial and recreational fishing. It would probably be more appropriate to note the percent of US waters that are closed to commercial fishing. Fishing is permitted in National Marine Sanctuaries, Marine National Monuments, and waters designated as National Park, but only to the extent that such fishing is consistent with the designation of those protected places.

For two, it is worth noting that the 85.5 million acres of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is about 2.5 million acres larger than all of the US National Parks *combined*. Additionally, the Bush Administration also recently nominated Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the first US nomination of a new World Heritage Site in 15 years. Moreover, not mentioned above is that the Bush Administration then outdid the above again by designating three new Marine National Monuments last month, with a total size of 125 million acres. Combined the four Marine National Monuments represent 2.5 times the total acreage of the National Park System.

However, none of those four National Monuments are going to be run by the National Park Service. Thus one wonders whether protection of marine habitats should be consolidated under a single agency while maintaining the same level of protection? This might mean transferring Biscayne National Park to this agency, and maybe the marine sections of Dry Tortugas while leaving the NPS in charge of Ft. Jefferson and the nearby islands.