By Megan Dethier, Billie Swalla, Claudia Mills and Richard Strathmann, Scientists at the Friday Harbor Labs
What are marine reserves, and why do we care about them on San Juan Island?
The terminology for various forms of ‘protected’ areas in the ocean is vastly confusing: Marine Stewardship Area, Preserve, Protected Area, Sanctuary, Conservation Area, Voluntary Reserve… all these are set up to protect some resources by limiting the type and amount of human activities allowed in them – but the range of such activities, and the agencies in charge, vary widely.
In Washington state, this issue is made even more confusing because jurisdiction over inter-tidal and sub-tidal land and resources are very complex, with private versus public ownership, control of the bottom by the Washington Department of Natural Resources but of animals in the water by Fish and Wildlife, and other facets by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard; if you don’t understand it, it’s not just that you haven’t been paying attention.
In 1923, The San Juan Archipelago was first designated a marine biological preserve by the Washington state legislature, and the director of the marine station was given responsibility for preservation of its marine resources. In 1969, the legislature reiterated this control of the “marine biological materials” to the director of the UW Friday Harbor Labs, except those gathered for human food, in the “salt waters and the beds and shores of the islands constituting San Juan county”; this regulation was updated in 2003.
The University also actually owns the tidelands in a number of areas (such as False Bay, purchased in 1974) and Argyle Lagoon and its saltwater creek (purchased in 1984 after leasing for many years) and manages those as more strict biological reserves.
Layered on top of that are a variety of marine protected areas that are managed by WDFW, and where harvesting of most species (except, often, salmon and herring) is prohibited. In each case, reserves are set up as management tools to help (in the words of WDFW) “protect and conserve fragile or unique habitats, species and culturally historic sites, enhance fisheries abundance and biodiversity.”
Some types of areas are meant to provide recreational and educational opportunities, while others limit recreational use where there are particularly sensitive resources or habitats. The UW biological reserves have the overarching goals of maintaining and restoring native biodiversity and ecosystem function, and facilitating education and research that is consistent with these goals.
Is this important?
To provide a bit of broader context, worldwide, there are international calls for 20 percent of the world’s oceans to be protected in some form. This month the U.S. State Department is hosting an “Our Ocean” conference; one of the goals there is to "dramatically accelerate protections for U.S. waters" in marine reserves, because of the documented role these can play in helping fishery stocks recover.
There are tens of scientific studies demonstrating that in no-harvest areas, fish are not only more abundant but they also grow larger and produce many more offspring; this results in an ‘overflow’ into adjacent regions, ultimately increasing harvestable stocks.
Marine reserves, such as those that contain eelgrass beds or salt marshes, also provide nursery areas for crab and other commercial species.
More subtly, marine reserves protect natural processes, by providing areas where organisms and their environment can interact in the ways in which they evolved. For example, in False Bay, natural processes of sedimentation, disturbance by waves, and input of dead plant and animal matter from land and sea provide a rich sand-dwelling community that feeds resident and migrating shorebirds as well as resident and migrating fishes. People who dig for clams disrupt those communities, and dogs that run loose often chase away the shorebirds that rely on places like False Bay for “tanking up” during migrations.
Finally, reserves provide a baseline against which to measure the effects of activities outside them. Because the impacts of harvesting and other activities are often unknown, that hedge against unanticipated effects can be of practical importance.
For example, the no-fishing reserves in San Juan Channel have allowed study of how this restriction affects diversity and sizes of both fish and their prey, when compared against adjacent open-to-fishing areas. Likewise, the closed-to-clamming areas in Garrison Bay not only create healthy clam populations (and spread larvae to other areas), but also make it possible to do research on the relative roles of digging holes versus actual harvest.
A large number of experiments contributing to our understanding of local marine resources have been done within San Juan County’s various marine reserves. Many of these sites are also used by the UW FHL K-12 Outreach program for teaching local school children about science and marine life. Ultimately, marine reserves and the understanding they promote benefits fishermen, shorebirds and bird-watchers, orcas, and people who simply love being surrounded by pockets of relatively pristine marine habitats.
In summary, marine reserves help preserve and protect our fragile marine environment.