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By Kaitilin Gaffney, Pacific Program Director Ocean Conservancy
In Wake of Changing Ocean, Marine Reserves Increase Resilience
California got a lot of bad news this week with the release of the state's report on climate change. According to that study, we're likely to be facing more heat waves, rising seas and increased coastal flooding, among other risks.
But in the wake of these predicted changes, there is some good news about our ocean's ability to rebound - and how we can help.
New research from Stanford University shows that marine reserves can help oceans bounce back after environmental disasters. The findings suggest that California is already on the right track with its recent establishment of the first statewide system of marine protected areas in the United States.
The groundbreaking study used data from areas around Isla Natividad, Mexico, including marine reserves established in 2006 by a local fishing cooperative. In 2009 and 2010, the area was subject to hypoxic events during which levels of dissolved oxygen in the seawater dropped. The lack of oxygen wiped out 75 percent of the abalone in fished areas but only 50 percent of the larger, denser abalone in the marine reserves.
Because scientists had begun studying the area in 2006, they were able to compare the abalone populations before and after the die-off.
After the mass abalone die-off, pink abalone in the marine reserves increased egg production by 40 percent compared to fished areas where the egg production was cut in half, according to the study. A significant amount of abalone larvae spilled over from the reserves into adjacent unprotected areas open to fishing, helping the abalone rebound throughout the region.
"Both the large size of the protected abalones and the population density were key to resilience," said Professor Fiorenza "Fio" Micheli of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif. "Marine reserves are vital to jumpstart the recovery of species following a mass mortality."
Study authors noted that the North Pacific harvest of all five species of abalone has declined from a high of 24,000 metric tons in the mid-1800s to a mere 115 metric tons in 1995. California once had a lucrative commercial abalone fishery but declines in the fishery caused by overfishing, diseases and predation forced a complete ban on commercial fishing for abalone in 1997, as well as adoption of severe restrictions on recreational abalone harvest.
The Isla Natividad abalone study builds on previous research
As ocean waters warm, tools like marine reserves that increase the resilience of fisheries and marine ecosystems will become more important than ever.
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