Rod Fujita: Works to Save Our Seas

Rod Fujita

Rod Fujita, an Oakland, California-based senior scientist with Environmental Defense who was instrumental in setting up marine reserves in the Florida Keys and the Channel Islands of California, is the author of Heal the Ocean: Solutions for Saving Our Seas (New Society Publishers). He is the recipient of a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and serves on the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee.

E Magazine: What compelled you to make the transition from basic scientific research to join the staff as a senior scientist of an environmental advocacy organization?

I received my Ph.D. in 1985. I did a series of post-docs looking at salt marsh ecology and nutrient dynamics and pollution. Then I got a research fellowship looking at coral reefs in the Florida Keys. That was the first time I got to spend a lot of intimate time in a marine ecosystem.

At Woods Hole and on the Oregon coast for my other work, the ocean environment is kind of hostile. It’s hard to get in the water, and it’s cold in the winter. Tides are big and there are lots of waves. You can only get a glimpse of the marine ecosystem through experiments and the occasional foray. But in the Florida Keys I was camping out on a coral reef called Carey’s Fort Reef—it’s about five miles off shore of Key Largo. I was in the water three or four times a day, diving, conducting experiments and making measurements.

I bonded with the ecosystem in a different way than I had before. It just struck me how beautiful and fragile it all was. Prior to that experience, I had not been politically active at all. I was really focused on basic research and publishing scientific papers. But when I leaned that there was an effort underway to open up some oil and gas tracts to exploration right in the Florida straits, affecting the Keys and the coral reefs there, it dawned on me that I ought to do something about it.

Much of your current work has focused on reforming fisheries policy. How dire is the situation?

Over the last 15 years, I’ve been working primarily on the San Francisco Bay delta restoration. In the last few years I’ve refocused on the ocean, working off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington, trying to reform federal fisheries that have been overfishing various stocks and damaging habitat. I played a role in the establishment of the marine reserve network around the Channel Islands down in southern California, also as a tool to protect ocean ecosystems from the effects of fishing.

Right now I’m engaged in various attempts to get the trawl sector under control. Various scientific studies have shown that trawling is quite a damaging way to harvest fish, but my take on it is that it’s really a logical manifestation of the way we manage our fisheries. It’s not that trawlers are by nature rapacious or greedy. They’re doing the rational thing when you examine the incentives that they face. Nobody tells them what their share of the catch ought to be. There’s no incentive to conserve, obviously, because any fish that they don’t catch is going to be caught by somebody else.

So it’s kind of inevitable, really, that people will build bigger and bigger boats and buy more boats and use bigger and bigger gear that’s more powerful to maximize their share of the catch. One project that we’re engaged in is trying to reform that system of management so that the incentives to over-exploit the resources will be replaced by incentives to conserve the resource.

What specifically needs to be done?

There’s a couple of different ways we’re working on that. One project is to change the management regime to a system of catch shares so that the fishermen receive a percentage of the allowable catch and can plan their fishing business around that share in a more rational way. They can get more money by catching fewer fish and causing less damage to the habitat.

Another effort involves a private sector buyout of trawl boats that have been damaging the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary for several decades now. Our buy-out program would have a quid pro quo exchange for the money that would be used to buy out the permit and the vessels, and retire them so they wouldn’t fish anymore. We would get commitments to big no-trawl zones that would serve as conservation areas.

We’re also working with fishermen on a system of no-trawl zones for the entire West Coast through the essential fish habitat mandate of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act. These are fishery closures, so they really don’t qualify as marine protected areas because they’re not permanent, and are not "no-take."

How important are marine reserves in preserving the health of the oceans and its inhabitants?

Marine reserves are seen as very controversial, but that’s from the perspective of a fisherman. From the perspective of an environmentalist, fishing is the experiment thing, right? Leaving areas of the ocean alone is what we ought to be doing, and that’s how the world was before we got here.

Taking large amounts of fish out of the ocean and damaging the habitat, that’s radical. We don’t really know what the impacts are to any great degree. We do know that it results in depletion, and in a couple of endangered species, like the white abalone. It definitely causes the destruction of corals and sponges on the bottom. If your values are about commercial activity, then marine reserves are a threat. If your values are about balancing sustainable fishing and habitat protection, then marine reserves make sense.

There is a very strong scientific consensus now with dozens and dozens of studies demonstrating that marine reserves do in fact allow fish populations to recover within their borders. The number of fish is far greater in marine reserves than on the fishing grounds. The exploited species that are fished out in the fishing areas are abundant in marine reserves, as you might expect. It’s not rocket science. The fish are larger in body size and more fecund, that is, they make more eggs, and the eggs that they do produce are more viable because the bigger females that are present in marine reserves—those that have escaped fishing pressure—make bigger eggs. There’s more fat in them, with more nourishment for the young fish, so their survival is greater.

What are the prospects for establishing more marine reserves in U.S. waters?

The trend is toward a greater understanding that fishing as it’s conducted now is not very sustainable in some cases. Marine reserves do make a lot of sense to a growing number of people. There’s momentum in California to implement the Marine Life Protection Act, which would create more marine reserves in California state waters. There’s a campaign in Oregon to do the same thing. Washington already has a number of marine reserves, established both by the state and also by counties, in an innovative way of using county law. In addition, I serve on the new Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, which is preparing a report that will recommend creating a national system of marine protected areas.

Wouldn’t such a national reserve system likely face some tough opposition from the Bush administration


Well, yes. The Bush administration may oppose this national system but it is a strong supporter of the catch share fishery reform, and I think the two go hand-in-hand. To the extent that you can accomplish rational fisheries management, then you"ll reduce conflict over marine protected areas.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Bush administration’s Ocean Action Plan?

The Bush emphasis on catch shares is really smart and reflects the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and also our point of view at Environmental Defense. The Bush administration is likely to support catch shares, and will urge Congress to re-authorize the Magnuson Act to include standards that will make it easier for the regional councils to implement them.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Ocean Action Plan doesn’t have much scope, and doesn’t address habitat protection very well. It’s kind of weak on all fronts, with the exception of the catch share provision.

What roles do state and international bodies have in ocean governance?

The Bush approach has created an opening for the states, and California, in particular, has really taken the oceans up in a very serious way. There’s money earmarked for ocean protection in a trust fund established under the new California Ocean Protection Act. The states are taking the lead on a lot of this stuff, and that’s a good thing.

On the international level, there is increasing interest within the World Conservation Union, which is a conglomerate of nation states and environmental groups, to protect sea mounts, which are these underwater mountains that are very rich in biodiversity, are very vulnerable to overfishing, and have a very high level of "endemism." That’s another way to say they have a lot of species that live only there and nowhere else.

Is the onset of global warming going to be devastating even if we are working on all these other fronts?

It depends on how you define devastating. For coral reefs, yes. Global warming could be their death knell, and the Florida Keys certainly are suffering from that. There’s almost no way to stop it at this point. Coral reefs are so sensitive to temperature change that it seems inevitable that a lot of them will die as a result of global warming. The latest research shows that you can actually increase the resilience of coral reefs to deal with climate change if you reduce the other stresses on them. And so it really makes sense to stop dynamite fishing and create marine reserves and stop polluting these systems so extensively. Keep the mangrove forests there, keep the sea grasses intact.

Given all the gloom-and-doom, are you optimistic or pessimistic overall?

Overall, despite the problems, I’m optimistic. I’ve seen how nature can repair herself if we back off. I think that’s really the key, that we’ve reached the carrying capacity of the oceans and it’s time to manage our exploitation activities more intelligently. It doesn’t mean we have to shut them down. It means that we’re really wasting a lot of the wealth that we could get from the oceans. We’re subsidizing their destruction to no economic end, and that’s just immoral. So, my optimism lies in the fact that improvement is on the way in terms of more rational fisheries management. And I think that if we can get the fisheries rationalized, we will reduce opposition to conservation measures and allow these very damaged ecosystems to recover.