SAN FRANCISCO — A five-year scientific assessment of California's first marine protection zones established off the Central Coast has found that some struggling fish species are showing early signs of recovery, officials said on Thursday.
Joined by scientists and state wildlife officials, California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird called the research promising, saying the data appear to show Marine Protected Areas are furthering conservation and benefiting the fishing industry's long-term outlook.
California implemented a patchwork of zones stretching from the Mexico to the Oregon border where fishing is banned or restricted. The first collection established in 2007 stretches from San Mateo to Santa Barbara counties, and was the target of this in-depth study.
The areas are located next to fishing grounds, and are meant to give species an off-limits fishing zone where they can recover and reproduce to help replenish sea life.
The study found increases in economically important fish species that live in kelp forests, like lingcod and black rockfish, in the protected zones as compared with similar areas outside of them.
The report also found that protected black abalone found on rocky shores within the protected areas increased in size and numbers.
"We hope we don't just make success here, but that other people across the nation and the world (will follow suit)," Laird said.
The scientific data collected for this first report will also be used to help compare conditions now with those found in the future, a key component of gauging the success of the zones over the long-term.
Still, the researchers charged with monitoring the effects of the so-called MPAs say this is only an early snapshot of what's to come, and that many more years of research are needed before they can be sure.
"(The state has) achieved a notable goal," Mark Carr, a marine biology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said. "But there's a responsibility of also identifying just how effective this network is in meeting conservation goals and augmenting sustainable coastal fisheries."
The protection zones are a response to three decades of precipitous declines seen in many California fisheries, said Michael Sutton, president of the California Fish and Game Commission.
"There are more than 30 years in declines in landings and revenues, and those trends were a result of chronic overfishing," Sutton said.
The collapse of fisheries led to widespread economic problems in coastal communities, and some fishermen thought these new no-fishing zones would only make matters worse by restricting their abilities to work.
And, while there are fewer fishers working today off the California coast, officials say there is sign of a turnaround in part due to the new zones.
"The data here suggest the fishing industry is becoming healthier on the Central Coast," Sutton said. "The total and average individual fishing revenues have increased since the (protection zones) took affect here in 2008."