An important first step

Oregon's new marine reserves won't by themselves restore depleted fish populations or revive the coastal economy, but they are an important and overdue first step.

The Oregon Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a bill creating two small marine reserves, one off Depoe Bay and the other off Port Orford. The legislation bars fishing and mining in both reserves, and requires that four other areas be studied for potential reserve designation in the future.

With the creation of these modest reserves, Oregon will join the other two West Coast states in actively working to better understand and preserve the ocean resources that are a vital part of the state economy.

The marine reserve issue triggered intense opposition seven years ago, when fishing groups and coastal communities resisted a broader network of reserves as a threat to their livelihood — even though the intent was to offset damage from overfishing. This time, all affected parties participated in drafting the legislation and signed off on the two small reserves laid out in the bill.

The most satisfying part of passing this bill may be that funding to implement it comes from damages paid by the owners of the New Carissa, the freighter that ran aground and broke up near Coos Bay in 1999. It is fitting that compensation for environmental damage is used to support environmental-recovery efforts.

Opposition from the fishing industry is understandable. Commercial fishing has been hammered by a host of circumstances beyond its control: fishery closures to protect salmon runs depleted by damage to fish habitat inland, changes in ocean conditions as a result of the cyclical El Niño phenomenon, and the general economic decline.

But to its credit, the industry put aside its concerns and endorsed this small project. It's important to note that the two reserves created in this legislation amount to less than 1 percent of Oregon's territorial waters, which stretch three miles offshore.

The idea behind marine reserves is that by creating a no-fishing zone, the entire underwater ecosystem is stimulated. Fish swimming there provide food for sea lions, seals and other predators, but their numbers are not depleted by fishing lines and nets.

Eventually, increased fish populations that spill over the boundaries of the reserve should benefit the fishing industry.

Reserves are not a cure-all for what ails the ocean. Pollution, climate change, forest practices and dams inland all contribute. But the reserves are an important piece of the puzzle.

Restoring the health of the ocean is a monumental task, but one we cannot afford to shirk. In the long run, a healthy underwater ecosystem benefits everyone.

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