January 2016: Revisiting the Protection/Restoration Debate

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

This column coalesced around four actions last October. First, as a frequent partner with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the American Fisheries Society (AFS) was invited to a presentation on the agency’s river restoration efforts, land-use planning, and regional mitigation strategies in the Arctic. Second, President Obama announced plans to pursue two new national marine sanctuaries. Third, and on the same day as the sanctuary action, the U.S. Justice Department revealed a $20.8 billion civil settlement addressing a portion of the environmental harm associated with BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Finally, to punctuate the flurry of poignant messages, Palau designated a 193,000 square-mile marine reserve, the sixth largest protected area in the world. From the Arctic to Palau, there are policies to debate and lessons to learn. You’ll sense some anguish in this column, prompted because we absolutely must find better balance in these two extremes—protect and restore.

At the heart of these actions is a choice. The options apply to fish habitat (the traditional bounds) but equally to fish stocks. In both arenas, the options can be clarified by parallels in our personal life. Consider our overall health, where the protective course of action is regular check-ups with timely immunizations and perhaps some vitamin supplements; the restoration approach to our well-being would be reactive, kicking into full gear after our health declines, then relying on prescription medicine and surgery to address serious disease. In dentistry, protection is akin to fluoride, flossing, and brushing, supplemented with regular visits. Restoration is decisive, but not until damage is detected, and we’re fighting cavities, drilling root canals, and perhaps checking our insurance coverage for dentures. Back in the fish world, my two extremes are not nearly so distinct. Regardless of where we draw the lines, it still makes obvious sense to invest in protection rather than settle for restoration.

As noted, this debate often focuses on habitat, but projecting those examples to fish is hardly a stretch. The ecological and economic costs of both options are at the root of the four actions mentioned in my opening paragraph. Protection is a strong decision to defend human values while reducing risks. It’s about minimizing and avoiding. In its simplest form, protecting stocks from unwise harvest or pressure from non-fishing threats simply makes ecological and economic sense. In the habitat world, the bottom line is that protecting a necessary hydrologic regime or spawning bed is light years easier than attempting to build one.

These options are clear and logical. Why, then, do we all too often practice poor hygiene with fish, to continue the metaphor? Why do we settle for expensive restoration when our wallets argue otherwise? Why don’t we invest more in protecting species from known threats rather than hoping our technical skills will enable us to restore them after their health has been severely compromised? And why is protection deemed to be a bad word to many sectors, including those, such as fishers, who gain from marine protected areas with fishing closures? Unacceptable answers to those policy questions are the root cause of my latent, fish-related anxiety.

Back to those current events noted at the top. BLM’s Arctic focus was the Jack Wade Creek Restoration Project in the Fortymile Wild and Scenic corridor in Alaska. Its efforts aim to reclaim fish habitats and restore stocks decimated by placer mining in the 1800s for alluvial mineral deposits such as gold. Now, equipped with new policies reflecting the latest reclamation techniques, BLM seeks to reclaim values lost for many decades.

Together, the four actions last fall typify our prospects for improved success across all systems. BLM’s challenges in Alaska, and comparable efforts in river systems in the lower 48, are immense, but perhaps not much more than the entire ecosystems at risk in tropical Palau. BLM’s focus on stream design, construction, and monitoring is comparable to work in marine sanctuaries, where successful management hinges on realistic objectives, adequate funding, and thorough monitoring.

The AFS has dabbled in this arena, but not nearly as much as it could and should. AFS wrote to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in mid-2015 urging a strong scientific approach to designating new sanctuaries. The Society also wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress to support their efforts to clarify wetland rules and regulations implementing the Clean Water Act. While those discussions continue, AFS must apply similar logic to fish, fish stocks, and fish habitat. All are easier to protect than to restore.

I usually end my column with a suggestion. Here I implore each of you to be proactive, to balance your options, to be realistic. We can do better.

Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily AFS. Letters to the Editor are invited.

Members click below for the January 2016 Fisheries magazine’s comple issue. Non-members, join here.

This content is for members only. Please login.