No-take' MPA marine reserves key to fish recovery

EDMONDS, Wa. (Nov. 22, 2002) – For a glimpse into Puget Sound's past, dive beneath the bone-chilling waves just north of the bustling ferry terminal here.

Fifteen feet under, there is a school of pencil-shaped baby tube snouts. A little deeper, a lingcod as big as a child glowers from a sunken ship's punctured hull. A quillback rockfish hovers near a heap of concrete blocks.

Welcome to Edmonds Underwater Park.

Started 30 years ago at the behest of scuba divers, it has become an eye-popping refuge for a host of scaly and squishy critters. Within this 22 1/2-acre no-fishing zone there is a diversity and abundance of marine life rarely seen elsewhere in the Sound.

"Mother Nature really just needs a chance," said Bruce Higgins, a 52-year-old diver who helped create the sanctuary.

The park was the first state-approved Marine Protected Area in Puget Sound to ban fishing, and it remains one of the most ardently protected.

There are now more than 100 such reserves around the Sound, the biggest being the 13,000-acre Skagit Wildlife Area, created in 1948 and expanded over the years. Most involve waters off state parks and have no fishing restrictions. Only 19 ban some or all fishing. Many simply prohibit development, such as dredging or dock-building.

"The theory is that when you create these small refuges, you're able to rebuild the stock of fish over a period of time," said Bruce Wishart of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. "Unless you have a place where they can survive and rebuild, they won't get there."

Anyone can nominate a site for protection. Those shielded from fishing pressures require approval from two state agencies -- the Departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife -- plus any affected tribes. Reserve proposals also must be studied for their impact on recreational and commercial fishing.

Fishermen have traditionally opposed the proliferation of off-limits zones, questioning whether they are successful in restoring fish stocks. But that tide may be changing.

Evidence is mounting that creating offshore wilderness areas is an essential strategy for saving certain species, particularly long-lived bottom dwellers like the Sound's threatened rockfish. For researchers, the reserves are a trove of information on native species.

For instance, the thriving rockfish population at Edmonds tells us that "there isn't something horrible that happened universally to Puget Sound and made them go away," said Mary Lou Mills, a marine ecosystem expert with Fish and Wildlife.

Local divers alarmed at the excesses of spear fishermen persuaded the city of Edmonds to create the reserve in 1970. For the past 25 years, Higgins has served as the park's unofficial steward, helping volunteers maintain trails for visiting divers and sink old boats to create more underwater housing.

Every Saturday morning, Higgins, a database engineer in blue jeans, meets with his crew to work on the site. Besides regular upkeep, the divers have done scientifically useful surveys of lingcod spawning and population. The budget for all this, about $1,000 raised by the group, is stashed in a cigar box.

Thirty feet under water, Higgins moves as comfortably as on land, slinging around heavy metal chains used to build trails. Last year, he missed only one Saturday work session.

"I think Bruce was born in the park," said Ryan Amberfield, one of the crew's regulars.

It's that passion, though, that has built Edmonds Underwater Park into a model for Puget Sound.

Leading scientists have called for 20 percent of the oceans around the globe to be turned into protected reserves.

California's Fish and Game Commission recently banned fishing in a 130-square-mile zone around the Channel Islands, creating one of the nation's largest marine reserves.

And earlier this year, Australia established the world's largest marine protected area -- a 25,000-square-mile reserve around the uninhabited, sub-Antarctic McDonald Islands.

Closer to home, an international, grass-roots effort has promoted the creation of pockets of protected areas around the San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands.

A voluntary fishing ban on everything except salmon already is in place at eight spots around the San Juans, policed by residents. And the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative, a congressionally funded program, intends to create more marine reserves in order to protect a wide range of offshore habitats.

The key, experts say, is public acceptance and support.

"There's a level of awareness that develops," Mills said. "People say, 'Wait a minute, this is an area we care about.' "