Federal or State, it's one sea: how do the Channel Islands square up?

We have devolved governance of MPAs in the UK (meaning England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have separate responsbility for MPA designation and management). In the same way, the US has the federal/state divide, whereby federal agencies dictate the resources and policy for MPAs in offshore waters, while States have the mandate for their inshore waters.

The Channel Islands network of MPAs is a good example of this. Designated as a federal National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) in 1980, they include older federal marine reserves, which were expanded into inshore waters by connecting State Marine Reserves and other conservation areas in Californian waters to create the network we see today. It is rightly considered a unique treasure, as the natural mixing of water currents and deep waters brings a richness of life not seen in most places.

If ever there was potential for confusion and overlapping governance, however, this would seem to be a good contender. I wanted to find out how management of the marine reserves around the Channel Islands worked, and how stakeholders had the opportunity to get involved. So I met up with Kristen Hislop, from the Environmenal Defense Center, a cool little NGO working through lawsuits and advocacy to protect the Channel Islands and further afield from damaging activities. We went to an awesome little coffee shop called Handlebar Coffee who roast their own delicicious coffee.

The EDC has the “conservation” seat on the NMS Advisor Council and Kristen is also co-chair of the MPA collaborative for the area, so is at the centre of it all from the environmental perspective. So how does it all work?

The critically endangered black sea bass has made a comeback in the Channel Islands since the reserves were introduced (photo: Jeffrey Bozanik/NPS)

The critically endangered black sea bass has made a comeback in the Channel Islands since the reserves were introduced (photo: Jeffrey Bozanik/NPS)

In essence, pretty well overall. The Islands are managed and enforced primarily by the Fish and Wildlife Service and State Parks according to a General Management Plan, with federal and state reserves essentially being treated as one network, despite different legal underpinning. In the federal arena, the responsibility of managing all national marine sanctuaries in the US rests with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

There is an Advisory Council with all the relevant agencies as well as representatives from all major sectors and the general public. The role of this influential advisory council is to inform and advise the overall manager of the Sanctuary (the superintendent of the national park) on the best way for the marine reserves to be managed. There are various subgroups of this council working on specialised topics.

Being on this council is a big thing, and there are alternates for every position in case the primary person can’t attend. Meetings take place twice a year, and as a group to sign off collectively on an action (such as a letter to Trump against opening up offshore sites for oil and gas exploration) can be a powerful thing.

So are the Channel Islands representative? In some ways, yes, but in others, no. The Channel Islands are a national treasure and rightly prized by agencies and locals alike. The local community here in Santa Barbara is environmentally conscious and aware, with a history of fighting against oil exploration and its effects on coastal marine life dating back to the 1960s. It’s also a generally affluent and liberal community (at least that’s the impression I have) and the area is hughly dependent on tourism for its income. So this combination of stakeholders’ interest, tourism revenues and the iconic nature of the Channel Islands themselves means that the MPA management starts from a good place here.

Guidebook reference to MPAs

Yet, even with that in mind, the process to add the state SMRs to the mix at past of the Marine Life Protection Act MPA redesign process was highly controversial, with a lot of bridges burnt. Even my 2005 guidebook in the airbnb i’m staying in mentions it (left)! Apparently, there is still resentment from the recreational fishing community and some people who would rather it be removed.

In this context, with this National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council in place, the role of the MPA collaborative group here is also slightly different to other areas, focussing on the softer side of outreach and education but with less direct involvement in MPA management. As with other collaboratives, it provides the space for more stakeholders to get involved than would be able to attend more formal mechanisms, but perhas doesn’t hold the same importance as other areas where it is the main forum for stakeholders to get involved.

I heard some common lessons from Kristen as I’ve heard before, namely:

  • Monitoring: this is absolutely key. It may not be politically sexy, but it’s the only way of showing stakeholders (especially resistant ones, and even here there are still resistant ones) that the MPA is working and worth the time and effort. It needs to be long-term, and needs a baseline survey before the reserves are established to compare against.

  • Local circumstances: for the reasons mentioned above, everyone has an interest in making the management of the reserves work here, even if it’s not perfect, and the combination of state and federal responsibility is a useful combination to get the necessary funding for the sanctuary. This is not the case everywhere: the Northern Californian coast has a very different feel, stakeholder community and oceanic conditions to down here in Santa Barbara (I know, having a NorCal wife!).

  • Messaging: California’s changing ocean conditions, especially long periods of high sea temperatures, brings its own risks, and a key selling point of MPAs should be to add resilience against the threats that come along with this. It’s not just about selling the “old fish, big fish, more fish” idea. In the U.K., we have made this point generally about out (multi-use) MPAs, but the argument stands that for highly protected sites, the resilience benefits would be even greater.

  • Time: these reserves simply need time. Time to work, time to adapt, time for people in power to learn what’s needed to maage them, time for people to build them into the background of their lives. Time is precious, but it’s the only sure fire way to ensure that the reserves work.

It was a pleasure to talk with Kristen, and I had hoped to dive the Anacapa marine reserve (the easternmost of the Channel Islands) today, but after two weeks, I really am just too exhausted. I’ll have to find time to come back here though!

Anacapa Island State Marine Reserve (photo: NOAA Ocean Service/Flickr Creative Commons)

Anacapa Island State Marine Reserve (photo: NOAA Ocean Service/Flickr Creative Commons)