OCEANS:

Group embarks on 'politically impossible' push for marine reserves

The Pew Environment Group is on a mission to create 15 massive marine sanctuaries by 2020.

Four down. Eleven to go.

Australia announced last week the creation of the Coral Sea Marine Reserve, which protects 386,000 square miles of dazzling reefs, deep-sea canyons, seamounts and an abyssal plain beyond the Great Barrier Reef. Oil, gas or other mineral extraction and destructive fishing trawls will be forbidden.

Tunas, sharks, whales, turtles and a wide array of tropical fish are found in high abundance in the region, as are more than 340 threatened or endangered species.

Pew helped spearhead the campaign to establish the reserve, which includes an area the size of Spain closed off to all fishing.

The nonprofit was also instrumental in establishing the other largest marine reserves in the world: two near the northwest Hawaiian Islands and the Marianas Trench in 2009, and another encompassing the Chagos Archipelago, a string of islands and coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, in 2010.

All told, the amount of ocean set aside from extractive activities adds up to 868,000 square miles -- an area larger than Greenland.

And the group is nowhere close to done. Pew's Global Ocean Legacy program is targeting no less than 3 percent of the ocean to protect as marine reserves -- a significant step toward the United Nations' conservation goal of 10 percent of marine and coastal waters.

In an era plagued by lack of international cooperation on climate change, ocean protection and fisheries management, how are Pew and its partners pulling this off?

With extreme practicality.

First, avoid prime fishing grounds. You can't win there, so don't bother. Instead the group typically looks for more remote places that are outside the fishing zones of large nations or small island communities.

Second, avoid the legal uncertainty of the international high seas. All the targeted reserves are within the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of individual countries.

Finally, find countries that have the political will to make bold conservation moves.

Jay Nelson, who directs the Global Ocean Legacy program, estimates there are 15 to 20 large areas that meet these criteria worldwide.

"Almost all of it is politically impossible," he said. "You couldn't plop a Yellowstone park along the California coast and say, 'Let me close it to fishing.'"

What does that leave? The Pitcairn Islands, Easter Island and the Kermadecs in the South Pacific; Bermuda in the North Atlantic; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic; and an array of French overseas territories throughout the world.

The Pew push has drawn some critics. The Billfish Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit advocating for fish conservation and anglers rights, raised concerns about the Australian reserve and continues to worry about restricting access for sport fishermen worldwide.

"We're not really an extractive group," said Peter Chaibongsai, conservation director at the foundation. "There is no reason to completely take us off the table."

So while a recipe for success, Pew's strategy is by no means guaranteed. Each reserve takes years of working with governments, building collaborations with other nonprofits and earning the support of local communities.

A fish named Barry

In Australia, Pew helped form a large coalition of local and international nongovernment organizations for the Coral Sea Marine Reserve campaign over the past five years. In addition to endorsements from high-profile actors (Leonardo DiCaprio) and scientists (Sylvia Earle), the campaign generated a groundswell of support for the reserve.

And a very popular "spokesfish" helped spread the word.

The coalition developed a high-quality television commercial featuring Barry Wrass, a large blue and green fish swimming in the Coral Sea who told viewers in an Australian accent how the sea is their equivalent of the Amazon or Serengeti and asked them to push for its protection.

"Can you make a difference?" Barry asked at the end of the commercial. "You bet your wrass you can."

When the government presented its proposal for a network of reserves around the country, including the Coral Sea, more than half-a-million people submitted comments in support. It was the most popular announcement ever made by the government, according to a weekly public opinion poll.

Australians didn't know much about the Coral Sea before, said Imogen Zethoven, Pew's Coral Sea campaign director.

"It was a place that wasn't really recognized in the public consciousness," Zethoven said. "All eyes are on the Great Barrier Reef because it's such a global icon."

Pew worked with commercial fishermen to identify areas that would remain open to long-line fishing, while closing 99 percent to trawls, 70 percent to long lines and 50 percent -- the marine park the size of Spain -- to all fishing. The areas with fishing are closer to shore, while the no-take reserve is farther out to sea.

The greatest push-back came from recreational fishermen who argued there is no evidence to support shutting them out. Chaibongsai of the Billfish Foundation noted that sport fishermen release the majority of their catches and want to see the fish thrive.

Anglers felt the benefits they provide were ignored by the Australian government, including millions of dollars pumped into the economy; license fees that support management; and scientific data collected through tagging catches, Chaibongsai said.

Records obtained by Pew show very little recreational fishing occurs in the more remote marine park. But with bigger boats and a thirst for the last frontier, sport fishermen likely already have or will want to fish in the region, Chaibongsai said.

The group also expressed concern about the precedent the Australian reserve would set for sport fishermen elsewhere.

"It is crucial that anglers worldwide, not just in Australia, are mindful that Australia will set an international precedent, either a responsible one for marine conservation or an overreaching one to please extreme environmentalists," the foundation's website says.

Given that recreational fishermen have an influential voice in Australia, Zethoven said, "what we achieved is very significant." It was critical to act now, she added, before fishing and drilling pressures intensify.

"We expect people will want to head further out to the Coral Sea more and more in the future," Zethoven said. "If we establish a marine park now with good management, then we can prevent the likelihood of recreational and commercial fishing having significant impacts in the future."

Rebranding Bermuda

While working to create no-take reserves, Pew officials know they cannot succeed without the support of local fishermen. So in several cases, the group has drawn a circle around islands where fishing already occurs and where business as usual will continue, and then started the off-limits boundary.

In Bermuda, they call it the Blue Halo.

The government is working on a proposal, expected out for public comment early next year, to protect the area between 50 miles and 200 miles from its shores -- 94 percent of its EEZ. If established, it would be the largest reserve in the Atlantic Ocean.

Bermuda sits in the Sargasso Sea, the only one in the world bordered entirely by currents and home to vast mats of free-floating golden seaweed, called sargassum.

Sargassum provides a safe haven for juvenile fish, sharks and sea turtles. Freshwater eels from North America and Europe travel thousands of miles there to spawn just before they die.

Many species have developed unique features to live there, like the sargassum fish with its five-fingered fins that can grip onto the floating algae. The sea is also a place vital to humans -- the microbes in the water there produce the oxygen for every fifth breath inhaled on Earth.

"When you shake sargassum, shrimps, crabs and little fish fall out of it because it is so rich in life," said Chris Flook, Pew's campaign coordinator there.

The Bermuda government wants to protect the whole Sargasso Sea, parts of which are in international waters. But before Bermuda can ask the rest of the world to take action, the small British territory is taking the first step, Flook said.

"People are really steamed up about this and think it's a fabulous idea," said Flook, who was born and raised on the island.

Establishing the Blue Halo would not just be good for fish stocks, it would enable Bermuda to rebrand itself as an eco-tourism destination -- something it's never done before despite a long history of conservation that began with seabird protections in 1616, Flook said.

"When you talk about 'blue halo' and 'golden rainforest,' it just sounds like you want to visit there," Flook said.

Scientists and pirates

Unlike terrestrial national parks, tourists will never visit most of these marine parks. They are too remote to draw anyone but researchers and raiders.

Setting up reserves has the added benefit of attracting scientists to their depths. While more is known about the Coral and Sargassum seas, often little is known about the areas targeted for protection -- and that's OK, said Nelson, the Global Ocean Legacy program director.

"If it's big enough, there is almost certainly unknown resources that will prove to be unique and fantastically important," Nelson said.

For example, researchers discovered new shark species around the Pitcairn Islands while photographing 17 spots in the proposed 77,000-square-foot reserve.

At the Marianas Trench, scientists found a pool of boiling liquid sulfur -- previously only detected on Jupiter's moon Io -- held at the ocean floor by the immense pressure of the water. A small fish appears to survive in the thermal zone between the scalding sulfur and frigid depths, possibly feeding on bacteria, Nelson said.

But there are also unwanted visitors.

Part of the reason Bermuda wants to set up the Blue Halo is to have more leverage to crack down on illegal fishing occurring in its EEZ. But illegal fishing continues in established reserves and tighter law enforcement is needed, according to a recent report by the Marine Conservation Institute (E&ENews PM, Oct. 4).

How is it possible to enforce such massive, remote reserves to ensure they are actually no-take? "We think about that more than anything else," Nelson said.

So far, he said, the reserves are "the most likely remote places on the planet to get reasonably good enforcement." For example, there is a military base in the Chagos Sea, and New Zealand is experienced at patrolling its EEZ because the ocean is such a huge focus of its economy.

Nelson said there is no way to completely stop illegal activities. But he and his team are working on a variety of fronts to improve enforcement, such as helping nations narrow down problem areas with satellite imagery so governments can target their patrols to a smaller area during certain times of the year.

Pew is also working on broader initiatives to require fishing boats to have a universal identification number like shipping vessels and to set up a fisheries crimes unit with Interpol so nations can better share information about suspected violators.

"A lot of things need to happen," Nelson said. "But if we could do this piece, these few sites, I think in 100 years from now, people will look back and say, 'That was lucky.'"