The Marine Conservation Institute presented its Blue Park Award to three agencies on Friday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Park Service. The ceremony was held at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
The Blue Park Award recognizes the collaborative efforts of state and federal managers in meeting the highest science-based standards for protection and management of the northern Channel Islands Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
President of the Marine Conservation Institute, Dr. Lance Morgan, said the idea of giving this award is not just to recognize all the work these institutions have done, but also be a model for other agencies around the globe to follow suit.
“About three years ago, we started this formal process of recognizing some of these areas around the world until we got to this point today where there are 16 areas,” Dr. Morgan said.
“This can be a model of success and so we ask ourselves ‘what are we going to do from here?’ ‘What do the next 10 to 20 to 30 years look like?’ This now becomes a model for what that looks like.”
Dr. Morgan added that the goal of the Marine Conservation Institute is to “recognize MPAs that deliver real results and hopefully to protect 30% of the ocean’s most important places by 2030.”
Dr. Morgan has been the president of the institute for the past six years.
Dr. Sarah Hameed, a Senior Scientist of Marine Conservation Institute, said that in order to receive a Blue Park Award, the agencies have to go through a rigorous evaluation using science-based criteria, including “an assessment of the biological significance of the area, the strength of their regulations and their management effectiveness.”
Becky Ota and John Ugoretz received the award on behalf of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Mr. Ugoretz told the News-Press “we didn’t do this to receive an award, we did it to sustain California resources for the future,” but also added that, “I think it’s really nice to be recognized for succeeding in that, so it’s great to know that what we did made a difference.”
When asked about some of the hardships they might have faced in their conservation efforts, Ms. Ota said, “Rather than talk about the challenges, I think many things came out of the Northern Channel Islands process.”
Ms. Ota talked about how the process really became the framework for putting together the MPAs along the coast. There are 124 MPAs, including the Northern Channel Islands.
“What was amazing about it is having all these parties who wouldn’t have normally worked together on any specific thing, come to the table together, both in the northern islands and then also throughout the MPA process. They all came together for a common goal,” Ms. Ota said.
“It was challenging, but what has happened as a result of that, once the network is in place is that those same groups are continuing to work together to help manage the MPA across the state, which is phenomenal. That’s a huge success story and it is exciting for me to see.”
Ms. Ota said that there is still a lot of work to be done and there is still a responsibility to share the information regarding the MPAs to other parties.
In 2022, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will have its first formal tenure review of the network with the fishing game commission.
She added that continual outreach, education, and research is also important.
“The fact that there are three agencies here throughout the state working with our state and federal partners and the fisheries and the recreational folks and the environmental groups, it’s always been a big partnership,” Mr. Ugoretz said.
Ethan McKinley, the Superintendent of Channel Islands National Park, received the Blue Park award on behalf of the National Park Service.
Mr. McKinley said that about 40 years ago, it seemed impossible to be “where we are now,” but in the last 20 years, having places like the Channel Islands National Park under federal and state protection has been “tremendous.”
“We’ve seen the fish populations increase the density of wildlife, we’ve seen the size of the fish increase, and we know that there’s a thriving ecosystem where once there may not have been, and so it’s rewarding. It feels great,” Mr. McKinley said.
Mr. McKinley said that a lot of the work the National Park Service provides is in education as much as it is about marine protection and telling fisherman where they can and cannot fish.
“We have lots of educational programs, which are a critical role in educating the community and educating folks around the country to appreciate it so we can have those resources to protect it,” Mr. McKinley said.
Ultimately, Mr. McKinley said that receiving the award was, “a high honor for us to be recognized for the efforts, this team puts in an incredible amount of work.”
Finally, Chris Mobley, Superintendent of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, received the award on behalf of the Marine Sanctuary.
Mr. Mobley told the News-Press one of the biggest issues on their behalf was fishermen, both commercial and recreational, had legitimate concerns about how this would impact their livelihood.
Mr. Mobley said that there were people protesting during public hearings and that made things difficult.
“We had to do something, we had to protect these resources,” Mr. Mobley said.
In 2003, the state portion of the network was established and in 2007, the federal portion followed. Now, 17 years from the state network establishment, Mr. Mobley said that there is a lot of data pouring in now showing that the marine reserves network is working.
“It’s increasing the abundance, size, and number of fish and the diversity of fishes, especially the ones that were hit hard by harvest. We’re seeing that has increased resilience and ability to withstand death threats like climate change. And the science is showing that,” Mr. Mobley said.
Another special person in attendance Friday was Gary Davis, a former marine ecologist who worked at the Channel Island National Park. He is now retired.
Dr. Morgan and Mr. McKinley both honored Mr. Davis and the important work he laid down 40 years ago to get this process of marine conservation kickstarted.
“It’s an amazing experience. Something you start talking about in the 1980s and to see it still working, and still informing what we do, and giving us options for the future, it’s really exciting. Everybody talked about multi-generational and that’s exactly what’s happened,” Mr. Davis said.
“We’re entering the third or fourth generation of people engaged in this network of reserves and making the ocean a healthier place. It’s what you want to happen.”