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Offshore havens

By Paul Koberstein
Portland Tribune

Conservation leaders in Oregon are eager to get the word out about Oregon’s new network of state marine reserves, which turns 6 years old next month and continues to expand, including two new ones added in January. Six environmental groups formed a new partnership that seeks the public’s help in their safekeeping, and they created a new website, www.oregonmarinereserves.org.

Offshore havens

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF OREGON FISH AND WILDLIFE - Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, created in 2009, is a 2.6-mile protected parcel offshore from Port Orford on the southern coast.

Conservation leaders in Oregon are eager to get the word out about Oregon’s new network of state marine reserves, which turns 6 years old next month and continues to expand, including two new ones added in January. Six environmental groups formed a new partnership that seeks the public’s help in their safekeeping, and they created a new website, www.oregonmarinereserves.org.

“Now that the five marine reserves and nine protected areas have been created, engaging all Oregonians in their stewardship is critical to success,” says Pete Stauffer of Surfrider Foundation, which formed the Oregon Marine Reserves Partnership along with the Audubon Society of Portland, Coast Range Association, Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, Oceana, and The Nature Conservancy.

“Oregon’s ocean belongs to all Oregonians — everyone has an opportunity to participate in the implementation, evaluation and sustainability of our marine reserves and protected areas,” Stauffer says.

The most striking aspect of the new reserves is their size — or lack of it. The five state marine reserves give strong protection to a total of only 40 square miles off the Oregon Coast. These reserves are adjacent to nine more moderately regulated “marine protected areas” on an additional 77 square miles.

These areas may seem tiny in comparison to the 60 million square miles within the Pacific Ocean, but not so small when you consider the 900 square miles that encompass Oregon’s Territorial Sea, which legally extends out 3 miles from

Astoria to Brookings. Oregon now includes about 13 percent of its ocean waters within marine reserves or protected areas, compared with 12 percent of the U.S. land base that is protected within a park or wilderness area.

Pressure to expand

Nevertheless, the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Ocean Legacy Campaign, a major player behind the political campaign that created Oregon’s marine reserves, considers the size of Oregon’s reserves as less than ideal.

Pew, a heavily funded private foundation based in Philadelphia, contends that larger reserves are much more effective at protecting ocean resources.

The Global Ocean Legacy Campaign played a key role behind the expansion last summer of a 490,000-square-mile marine reserve in U.S. waters in the central Pacific, as well as the 2012 creation of Australia’s Coral Sea Marine National Park, which covers nearly 200,000 square miles. It also supports the creation of even larger marine reserves planned in waters around New Zealand, French Polynesia and New Caledonia.

“Research shows that very large, fully protected marine reserves are key to rebuilding species abundance and diversity and protecting the overall health of the marine environment,” Pew states on its website.

Pew’s ocean scientists say that marine reserves should be large enough to protect entire ecosystems and highly migratory species like sharks, whales and tunas that live there. In addition, the scientists say that large marine reserves should help fish and wildlife survive as their oceanic habitats get warmer and more acidic as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

Bigger reserves, bigger fish

Pew has found that the density of plant and animal populations increases within large reserves on average by 166 percent compared to before the creation of the reserve. Individual animals grew an average of 28 percent larger, and the number of species increased by an average of 21 percent.

Studies now are underway in the Oregon reserves to determine how fish populations are faring under the state’s new conservation program. The reserves were specifically designed to protect the unique array of species that live in Oregon’s coastal sea. Most of these are colorful, fat, long-lived rockfish that don’t migrate very far.

Many are declining in population or are at a fraction of their former abundance, including yelloweye rockfish, canary rockfish, black rockfish, blue rockfish, brown rockfish, china rockfish, quillback rockfish and copper rockfish. They are popular at seafood markets and restaurants around the state.

The reserves also offer some protection to the Oregon Coast’s large bull kelp forests. And they enhance existing protections for the endangered snowy plover, and haul out and pupping areas for harbor seals, Stellar sea lions, and California sea lions. Some of the dramatic rock formations that peek above the surf off the north and south coasts, where millions of sea and shorebirds roost, also are protected by the reserves.

In the marine reserves, most extractive activities are prohibited. No one is allowed to take any living thing or cultural artifact. People are discouraged from collecting small, nonliving souvenirs, but encouraged to take pictures.

In most instances, the rules of wilderness apply: Leave no trace. The main exceptions to this rule allow for scientific research that studies the relatively undisturbed areas as well as large-scale ecosystem changes that occur over time. Transit by motorized boats and the oily sheens of water pollution they leave behind also are allowed.

In the marine protected areas, where the rules vary, a limited amount of salmon fishing, crabbing and other activities is usually allowed.

On the shoreline, people can dig for clams above the low-tide line, and can fish with hook and line. They also can fish for groundfish in certain locations from a private, nonchartered boat.

The regulations are enforced by the Oregon State Police.

Although conservationists have been establishing marine reserves around the world for many decades, the process of creating them off the Oregon Coast didn’t start until 2008. In 2009, the state’s first two sites were established: the 2.6-square-mile Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve near Port Orford, noted for its six rocky outcroppings, and the 1-square-mile Otter Rock Marine Reserve near Depoe Bay.

A public campaign to expand the budding network of reserves was led by Our Ocean, a citizen group created by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Other conservation groups as well as the Oregon Ocean Policy Advisory Council and three state agencies — the departments of Fish and Wildlife, Land Conservation and Development and Parks — joined in and a bill passed the Legislature. Gov. John Kitzhaber signed it in May 2012.

In January 2014, two new reserves were added to the network, the 12.3-square-mile Cape Falcon Marine Reserve next to Oswald West State Park between Arch Cape and Manzanita, and the 9.6-square mile Cascade Head Marine Reserve north of Lincoln City. A fifth marine reserve, the 14.1-square-mile Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve near Yachats, opens in January 2016.

Proposed marine reserves close to Haystack Rock, Cape Foulweather and Cape Sebastian were rejected.

Eventually, the state hopes to establish a system of up to nine marine reserves in Oregon’s Territorial Sea to conserve marine habitats and biodiversity and provide for scientific research and monitoring, while avoiding significant adverse social and economic impacts on ocean users and coastal communities.

Our Ocean has since disbanded, and the Pew money has dried up, leaving implementation to the people of Oregon.

Conservationists and fishing groups hope the new marine reserves will help stabilize Oregon’s oceanic ecosystem and ensure that its rockfish and other coastal wildlife will be around for future generations of Oregonians to enjoy.

Paul Koberstein is editor of Cascadia Times, an online journal of environmental news at www.times.org. A former reporter for The Oregonian and Willamette Week, his writing also has appeared in Grist, Earth Island Journal and The Progressive.

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