Big Fish Near Marine Reserves Called Weighty Evidence That Bans Work

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since the dawn of the Space Age, fishermen here have grown to accept the 15-square-mile security zone that keeps boats out of the waters surrounding rocket launching pads.

Indeed, clever fishermen long ago learned how to parlay a forbidden zone into a bonanza: If an area is set off-limits, the fishing on the perimeter can be extraordinary.

Scientists more recently discovered the same thing, carefully recording the remarkable abundance of fish in the protected waters surrounding the Kennedy Space Center and the cluster of trophy fish caught just outside the boundary.

This case study of the "spillover effect" has surfaced as a prime argument for establishing similar no-fishing zones off the California coast. State officials are planning a network of no-take zones around the Channel Islands, in addition to last week's emergency closing of most bottom fishing along the continental shelf.

Marine biologists have documented a resurgence of sea life in closed areas in the Florida Keys and on New England's Georges Bank. Other studies have found signs of similar recoveries in marine reserves off New Zealand and South Africa, in the Philippines and the Caribbean.

In a survey of 89 scientific papers, UC Santa Barbara researchers found that 90% of marine reserves around the world had more fish, 84% had much larger fish and shellfish and 59% had a far greater variety of marine life than did adjacent waters. So far, the spillover effect hasn't won many converts among anglers, who disdain it as "junk science," and fear new limits on where they can fish.

Yet fishermen flock to the peripheries of the off-limits areas, their actions belying their skepticism.

"The prime fishing areas have always been right up against the NASA restricted area," said Frederick D. Mastin, who runs the Space Coast Sportfishing Foundation. "Everybody knows that."

Government officials who regulate fishing say they have little choice but to set up the ocean equivalent of wilderness areas to protect disappearing wildlife. Fish stocks have fallen too low. Traditional measures, such as limiting catches or limiting the size of fish taken, have failed to halt the slide.

Without establishing safe havens for breeding stock, regulators say, there will be little left for future generations to catch.

This is considered particularly true for California's largely sedentary, bottom-dwelling rockfish, which are slow to reproduce. Federal officials stepped in July 1 to close 8,500 square miles of California's continental shelf to fishing for rockfish and ling cod--an emergency action to keep these species from edging toward extinction.

What's happening off California makes the abundance of big fish around Cape Canaveral all the more remarkable. Near the space center, anglers say, the fishing has never been better, although they don't always agree on why.

James Bohnsack, a research biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Miami, said these fully protected areas function like natural hatcheries, spilling out offspring and adults to restock surrounding areas.

One study of which he was co-author shows that the marine reserve around the Kennedy Space Center is teeming with two to 12 times as many fish as the adjacent waters, depending on the species, and that the fish are much older and larger.

A follow-up study shows that the best anglers have learned to turn this protected bounty to their advantage by working the edges. The number of world record catches of redfish, black drum, spotted sea trout and common snook are higher in the waters adjacent to Cape Canaveral than anywhere else.

"The data was collected by recreational fishermen themselves," said Bohnsack, who is weary of debates over marine reserves. "If I collected it, they would say I'm biased and I made it up. Their own data shows the benefits."

Troy Perez has benefited more than most from the fertile waters around Kennedy Space Center.

A man of few words, Perez has a reputation for reeling in some of the biggest fish ever caught on light tackle and then quietly sending off the records to the International Game Fish Assn.

Enormous fish, stuffed and mounted, line the walls of his den--all caught in the waters near Cape Canaveral. Word of the records spread and fishermen now flock to the Cape Canaveral area, lured by the prospect of landing a big redfish, also known as red drum for their booming grunt. Redfish were nearly wiped out elsewhere during the "blackened redfish" dining craze of the 1980s.

Like other locals, Perez, 39, has long accepted the closing of the cape area, which was first imposed in 1962, before he was born. But he is irked that the restricted zone has been expanded in recent years to protect manatees--slow-moving, half-ton marine mammals--from boat propellers and, more recently, to enlarge the security buffer against possible terrorist attacks.

He acknowledges that these waters, unlike most other places, have remarkable fishing.

Are the biologists right? Can this be attributed to closed areas?

No way, he says. He attributes the return of the redfish to Florida's 1995 ban on commercial gill nets and to the strict limits that allow a recreational angler to take home just one fish between 18 inches and 27 inches long. He doesn't buy the idea that the protected area has helped replenish the surrounding waters.

So, if Perez were in charge, would he open the waters that have been untouched for 40 years?

"No."

Why not?

"Better to leave it the way it is."

Tom Twyford understands such thinking, though he disagrees. As executive director of the 1,400-member West Palm Beach Fishing Club, he said recreational fishermen worry about being steam-rolled by bureaucrats and environmentalists and losing what they love to do.

Twyford broke ranks two years ago, writing an article in the club's "Tight Lines Bulletin" urging support of the 180-square-mile Tortugas Ecological Reserve in the Florida Keys, which was established last July.

He argued that there are simply too many fishermen chasing too few fish. Many recreational fishermen argue that "I'm only one boat and I don't have any impact," Twyford said. "We have millions of people and, collectively, we have a significant impact." Government officials say their experience in the Florida Keys and around Cape Canaveral offers a model for what they are trying to do in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off Southern California. State officials in December are to decide whether to set aside 25% of the waters around the islands as no-take zones.

"You cannot get people to rally around this, particularly those who are going to benefit the most," said Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Peer pressure, he said, stifles public support from fish trappers, commercial trawlers and recreational anglers.

Still, he said, opposition wanes over time. It has been years since he has been hanged in effigy. More encouraging is that once-hostile fishermen now approach him in the supermarket to confide their pleasure at the signs of fish renewal.

"People who were previously in my face are now coming back to me saying, 'They are working,' " Causey said, about marine reserves.

Biologists know that some species rebound quickly, while others take time. In New England, the collapse of the cod fishery prompted sweeping closures in 1994 on the Georges Bank. Eight years later, cod and other ground fish there continue to struggle. But the sea scallop population showed a 14-fold increase in the first four years, and individual animals were much larger.

Size matters for fish. Both fish and shellfish produce far more eggs as they grow older and larger.

That's why scientists are so intrigued by creating safe harbors for fish, so they have a chance to mature and repopulate.

More than 160 prominent marine scientists threw their support last year behind reserves to reduce the possibility of extinction for marine life and to rebuild depleted fisheries. Not only are reserves good for fish, scientists concluded, but they are good for fishermen too.

But the American Sportsfishing Assn., which has declared war on the marine reserve movement, hired Robert Shipp, chairman of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama, to do a different kind of study.

He concluded that marine reserves would not help 98% of 350 different types of fish he examined because they would simply swim out of protected waters. .

Other scientists agree that reserves will not conserve highly migratory fish, such as tuna or salmon.

That's one of the reasons that the waters inside Kennedy Space Center's security zone have long intrigued scientists. Redfish, which often swim long distances, have tended to stay put, apparently because the surrounding barrier islands don't make it easy for them to migrate into the open ocean.

It wasn't until the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 that marine scientists got NASA's permission to take a peek. With the space program on hold, biologists were permitted to do a fish census.

They were astounded by what they found. "Nowhere else have I seen that kind of density," Bohnsack said. "It's an incredible concentration of fish."

Bohnsack dismisses fishermen's theories that the trophy catches result from the 1995 ban on gill nets or regulations that limit anglers to one fish in a specific size range.

"These fish don't grow overnight," he said, noting that redfish live to be 35 years old and black drum to 70 years. "It takes them a while to reach record size.

"If you look at the world records since the [Florida-wide] gill-net ban in 1995, 18 out of 20 came out of the Cape Canaveral area," he said. "Why just there? Why not elsewhere? The fishermen ignore the best, simplest and most logical explanation."

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