Marine Reserves

Marine Reserves Photo Credit: U.S. National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons

Ever declining numbers of marine plants and fish are sending ecologists scrambling for better ways to protect the oceans. Some have suggested that marine reserves are the answer. This Science Update looks at the unexpected impact marine reserves have on their surroundings.


Replenishing the sea. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In 1872, Yellowstone became the first of many national parks in the U.S. Now, many scientists are calling for more -- not just on land, but in the sea. They want to establish marine reserves, areas where natural resources can't be removed. You might think fishermen would object to these restrictions.

But Robert Warner, a marine ecologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara, says marine reserves have benefits beyond their borders. He and his colleagues have found that these reserves contain twice as many fish and twenty percent more species of fish than other areas.

The average size of organisms has increased as well, almost 30 percent. Now that doesn't sound very much that, maybe you have a 10 cm animal, now you have a 13. But, the number of babies that individuals can have as they get bigger goes up in an exponential fashion with length.

Those babies stock the reserve and nearby fishing areas, both preserving fish species and rebuilding depleted fisheries.

Fishermen have come around. They have become advocates for establishing reserves, and here's why. It's simply because fisheries yields have increased and fisher's yields have become much more sustainable. That is, they've been dependably there from one year to the next. So it's a win-win situation.

For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Marine reserves are areas that have been legislated to prevent extractive activities such as removal of species, oil, or gas. Similar to national parks, marine reserves allow visitors to see animals and plants in normal, natural conditions where they're not being hunted or fished. In addition to preserving biodiversity in the protected areas, these reserves produce offspring that can replenish and diversify outside areas as well.

Establishing marine reserves poses several challenges. Determining the optimal area to be set aside for a marine reserve is an ongoing challenge. For example, the needs of conservationists and fishermen must be evaluated and balanced. In addition, extensive research must be conducted to determine the optimal size and location for reserves. This information is crucial to the design of successful management and conservation plans.

Now try to answer these questions:

  1. What are the benefits of creating marine reserves?
  2. What is the significance of the increasing size of the fish in the reserves?
  3. How are marine reserves like National Parks? How are they different?
  4. What is the role of the fishing industry in marine conservation? How would conservation efforts benefit them in the long run?
  5. Do you feel that protecting fish in the reserves, and then freeing them for purposes of fishing represents a conflict? Why or why not?

For Educators

Go to Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) to learn more about current research on marine reserves.

Visit National Geographic's Sustainable Seas Expeditions website for an exploration of the U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries. Go to the section on Monterey Bay to learn more about the twenty-six species of marine mammals that live in the sanctuary. You also can take an interactive dive into a kelp forest or go for a spin through a Monterey Bay kelp forest in a DeepWorker sub with National Geographic's Radio Expeditions.

The U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration maintains National Marine Sanctuaries, the official gateway to the U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries. Here you'll find important information about the nation's marine sanctuaries -- how they were established, how they're managed, their scientific and educational programs, and the many exciting events that occur in them throughout the year. Within the 13 sites, you'll discover a vast range of marine creatures, habitats, historical artifacts, and flourishing maritime cultures.

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