Saving Oregon's ocean ecosystem

by: ,

The recent and drastic decline in the once-abundant smelt runs of the Columbia River and its tributaries is strong evidence that it's time to redouble efforts to protect Oregon's marine environment.

Smelt dippers, who used to catch a day's limit with a single scoop of their nets, are walking away empty-handed this year while biologists scratch their heads and wonder what has become of the 6-inch fish.

Though no one knows for sure why the smelt have disappeared this year or whether they will be back, to be sure there is cause for concern.

Just last month the National Marine Fisheries Service relisted Oregon's coastal coho salmon for protection under the Endangered Species Act, a huge setback to voluntary programs aimed at restoring the region's signature fish.

These events may or may not be related, may or may not be connected directly or indirectly with global warming, pollution and/or overfishing and may or may not portend a larger environmental calamity. Nevertheless, under these circumstances an abundance of caution is warranted, in our view.

It is out of this abundance of caution that Oregonians should welcome Gov. Ted Kulongoski's plan to establish up to 10 marine 1.5-mile reserves along the Oregon coast that would be off-limits to fishing.

The governor has asked Oregon's Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC) and Oregon State University's Sea Grant program to make recommendations on how to best manage these reserves.

Oregon's coastal communities are understandably concerned about this process and where it may lead. They find themselves in much the same position as the state's logging communities faced a few years ago when a little bird called the northern spotted owl came into the limelight and signaled similar environmental perils. This time it is fishing jobs that are at stake.

Certainly, the economic vitality of coastal communities must be factored into OPAC's recommendations and the governor's decision in order for the marine reserves to succeed. Coastal communities, after all, are the primary stewards of the marine environment and Oregon needs their buy-in. Marine protection built on the backs of these communities won't work.

However, economic factors can only go so far. The bottom line is the state has a public resource to protect long term. Allowing reefs to die or species to go extinct is unacceptable at any cost.

It may be that coastal communities need to reinvent themselves by embracing marine reserves and building new economies around them. They may want to take some cues from communities around the Channel Islands National Park, one of the biggest and most successful marine reserves in the world. There is no question places like Avalon, Ventura and Santa Barbara, Calif., are better off as the result of marine reserves than they would have been had the fishing industry been given exclusive rights to prescribe the solution. They have built a flourishing tourist industry around the Channel Islands.

If anything, Kulongoski's program is too heavily weighted in favor of coastal communities, whose representatives comprise 11 of OPAC's voting members. Inland representation on the board is conspicuously absent.

With marine environments all over the world showing signs of poor health, Oregon, with jurisdiction over 360 miles of coastline, is on the right track to take a leadership role in protecting the world's oceans and rivers. R.S.