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Oregon leads the nation in protecting its natural resource lands. Our comprehensive land-use planning system prohibits most development outside urban growth boundaries. But no such protections extend to the ocean waters along the state's coastline.

The first three nautical miles from the shore constitute Oregon's 'territorial sea.' This public property belongs to all of us. As a state representative, I'm responsible for looking after it.

The submerged continental shelf and the waters above it are one of the most productive regions of the state. In healthy coastal waters, kelp and other sea plants grow abundantly. Shellfish attach to boulders. Bottom-dwelling vertebrate fish grow to maturity there before moving into the deep ocean.

But like any natural resource, Oregon's coastal waters can suffer from human activities. Past over-fishing has depleted stocks we depend on for a key protein source. Anything that disturbs plants and smaller fish in these waters weakens the low-end of the food chain. Mistreated areas can turn into water-filled deserts.

In recent years countries around the world have adopted a new method for protecting coastal waters - marine reserves. Activities that remove animals and plants or alter habitats are prohibited inside the reserves. Examples of prohibited activities are fishing, aquaculture, dredging, and mining. Boating, swimming, and scuba diving are usually allowed in marine reserves.

Restrictions on fishing to allow depleted stocks to recover are not new. But historically these have been narrower in scope and apply for only a limited time. By contrast, marine reserves provide complete and permanent protection.

Scientific studies show that marine reserves substantially improve the health of coastal waters they cover. The sheer volume of plants and animals, known as biomass, increases several-fold. The number of plant and animal species nearly doubles. The average body size of fish and the number of species also increases.

The U.S. lags behind several other countries in establishing marine reserves. Australia, Spain, even the Philippines have done more. Most U.S. marine reserves are located in Florida and Southern California. Washington state now has several.

Oregon currently is the only West Coast state with no marine reserves. The Legislature has the opportunity to change this when it convenes next January. Strategic placement of reserves along the Oregon coast would improve the health of our ocean ecosystem.

Any proposal to restrict human activity in natural resource areas faces resistance. Operations that depend on coastal fish stocks fear losing access. Commercial fishermen must bring in a catch in order to repay loans for boats and equipment.

Marine reserves should be located and sized to balance these needs with the restoration they provide. Done right, they will improve the resources commercial and recreational fishing depends on. And the reserves will act like a savings account, providing more resilience to the fragile nearshore ecosystem.

But fishing isn't the only resource to consider. As we cut our dependence on imported oil, waves along the coast offer a potential source of renewable energy. The placement and size of marine reserves must accommodate this resource, too.

Most Oregonians' experience with coastal waters consists of what they can see in a walk on the beach. But a healthy ocean also sustains roughly $1 billion in coastal economies. We all have a stake in how this resource is used. With care and foresight, Oregon can be a leader in ocean use planning as well as land use or by paper mail at 322 Second St., Lake Oswego, OR 97034.

Rep. Greg Macpherson, Lake Oswego, represents Oregon House District 38. He is not running for re-election.

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