A DIVE TIME Column
by Tim Grollimund
When I moved to the Keys, I only knew a few people. You could count the number on one hand. These same folks are very close friends now - even after they’ve gotten to know me better! And I have developed some other very close friendships. Not only with people, but with a few places. I’ve told you about them - the deep sections of the reefs, the south end of Molasses and the pillar coral spot. All these are very special places. Why do I keep going back? Because they are places I can count on for unique and continuously good stuff to see.
And there is one more spot - Snapper Ledge. There is a petition to have Snapper Ledge set aside as a no-take zone. I support it. If you have been there, you know it’s unique. It’s a very small area, probably less than the size of a football field. Some people want to set it aside, and some don’t. We all have our reasons. The petition is worded to elevate the merits of the site as a haven for fish and divers, and uses language that fisher persons - spear and hook - probably don’t like. I wouldn’t if I were a fisher person. The Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting is August 16th, 9AM at the Marathon Garden Club, 5270 Overseas Highway. The petition is here: www.PetitionOnline.com/snapledg/petition.html
. Here is a video that supports the effort: www.vimeo.com/1861001 and a link to PDF file you can download: www.mpa.gov/sciencestewardship/mpascience/
So, wording notwithstanding, and as I am curious by nature, I started looking into this whole concept of marine protected areas (MPAs) and no-take zones (nMPA). And I found Dr. Ben Halpern of the University of California. He is an expert in the field, and has worked with the state of California to implement a network of MPAs along their coast. There are species concerns, spatial concerns, habitat concerns - everybody’s concerned.
We talked about a couple of studies he’s done. The first addresses the basic question - do no-take MPAs work? And does size matter? Well, yes they do in fact increase biomass, density and size of the fish inside the protected area for most species. No argument there. And some of you will be relieved to know that size does not matter. The scale may be different - 100 to 200 fish versus 1000 to 2000; but nMPAs of all sizes work - inside the boundaries.
So the second question was do they work outside of the protected area - is there spillover, and if so, how much? Yes, there is - and here is a very interesting point, which I believe helps make the case for Snapper Ledge. It seems as though a series - or network - of small to medium-sized nMPAs may work better than one large one. But as is always the case, there are complications. Habitat, structure, depth, and other variables all enter the fray. A strategically placed network of small to medium-sized nMPAs can override the loss of fishing territory and result in a net gain in the yield of fish to the entire area, according to Dr. Halpern - but not for all species. There are places where the give-up of fishing space is less than compensated for by the increase in fish from the spillover from the nMPA. Each place is different - Dr. Halpern said they spent years and tons of bucks taking all that into consideration - and they did it at the state level within their 3 mile zone. But we have federal requirements, not just state, so strap yourself in - this is going to take a while.
Here is an interesting case in point - a study on the Dry Tortugas a few years back. Google “Bulletin of Marine Science 633-654 2006” and you can see this for yourself. I’ll just skip to the ending: “In the long run, a precautionary ecosystem-based approach to management using multiple control methods offers promise for providing fishery sustainability and persistence of the Florida Keys coral-reef ecosystem... combining catch controls with large closed areas may be the most effective system of reducing risk of stock collapse while maintaining short- and long-term economic performance and buffering uncertainty.” That says it all.
To get the big picture of what it will take to make Snapper Ledge a no-take zone, I had the privilege of talking with Sean Morton, Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. He was very familiar with Dr. Halpern’s work, and he explained the process from the FKNMS viewpoint. Sanctuary regulations, which can be drafted by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council in conjunction with FKMNS, go through an extensive public process prior to the regulations being published in the Federal Register. The Snapper Ledge request will be part of an all-encompassing package from Biscayne to the Dry Tortugas, including the backcountry. Add to that all the studies and data required to support the requests. Because user groups have a chance to examine the documents and comment on the proposals, waiting periods for comments come into play. This will most likely be a two to three year process. Sean explained the process, but we don’t have the space here for all the details. It is a massive project when all the elements are taken into consideration.
Paradigms shift. Conditions change. We don’t have a crystal ball. We do have a small area that can be preserved, and we will not know if the net reduction in fish caught or speared will be offset by the future increase in life generated by making Snapper Ledge a no-take zone. Only time will tell. I’d like to give it a shot - with a camera, not a spear.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Keep tabs on his activity for the Coral Restoration Foundation at www.timgimages.com/crlogbook.
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