National Geographic : 2007 Apr
Despite the recent gains, only 0.01 percent of the world's oceans Given the success of Goat Island, one might assume that the rollout of further marine reserves would have been rapid and decisive. It wasn't. For the next three decades Ballantine would square off against stubborn anglers, re luctant bureaucrats, and fence-sitting scientists. There was a setback with the very next reserve application, over the Poor Knights Islands, 12 nautical miles off the Northland coast. Rem nants of an ancient volcano, this cluster of reefs and pinnacles lies at an intersection between temperate and subtropical waters. A warm cur rent originating hundreds of miles to the north west sweeps past the islands, raising the water temperature one degree higher than on the coast and bringing with it a host of tropical visitors, from coral shrimps to whale sharks. The underwater architecture is as striking as the marine life. Millions of years of weathering have riddled the islands with arches, tunnels, and caves. The walls of one arch drop 150 feet from surface to seabed, completely drenched in living color. At times, squadrons of 60 or more stingrays hover like stacks of flying saucers in this ethereal blue keyhole. A submarine cave on the exposed eastern side holds a permanent air pocket trapped against its ceiling. Divers enter through a portal 40 feet under the surface and swim up into the bubble, which is the size of a small car. It is a wonder fully incongruous feeling to take out your scuba mouthpiece 20 feet under the sea and breathe deep drafts of moist, salty, subterranean air. Rated one of the world's top subtropical dive sites, the Poor Knights would seem to have been the perfect candidate for reserve protection. Yet astonishingly, the legislation crafted to protect such habitats was amended to downgrade that protection. Pressure from recreational fishing interests was the reason. The islands were a favorite destination for anglers and supported a strong game-fishing fleet. Anglers strenuously objected to having such prized fishing grounds declared off-limits. And so began what Ballantine calls the grand compromise, in which commer cial fishing was banned but recreational fish ing for the most popular species was permitted. To Ballantine it was a travesty. The act of 78 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . APRIL 2007 parliament that sanctified ordinary Goat Island now denied the iconic Poor Knights its chance for ecological redemption. Seventeen years of jousting would elapse before the recreational fishing provision was removed and full protec tion was conferred on the beleaguered Knights. To be fair, few realized the extent to which recreational fishing can damage marine ecosys tems. Commercial fishing, with its capacity to scoop up whole schools in a single trawl, or deploy thousands of hooks in a night, was per ceived to be the enemy, not a bunch of weekend anglers trying to catch a feed. Only later, as fish numbers dwindled and some species became rare, was the scale of the problem realized. A curious thing happens when fish stocks de cline: People who aren't aware of the old levels accept the new ones as normal. Over generations, societies adjust their expectations downward to match prevailing conditions. The concept of a healthy ocean drifts from greater to lesser abun dance, richer to poorer biodiversity. For those who live through the changes, who witness the emaciation of the sea at firsthand, it is a dispiriting experience. "I take visitors out to the Poor Knights today, and they're so excited by the fish life they're just about walking on water," says Wade Doak, one of the country's pioneer divers and underwater naturalists. "And all I can think is that they're seeing a crumb, a skerrick of what it once was." Marine reserves are an antidote to this collec tive amnesia. They provide a scientific bench mark against which changes in the wider ocean -the exploited ocean-can be measured. "If nothing is left intact or pristine, how can you know that damage has occurred?" Ballantine asks. Indeed, how do you even imagine an undamaged state? Seen in this light, marine reserves are the ref erence collections of the sea, or, as Doak likes to call them, "wet libraries." Like libraries on land, they should be regarded as essential public amenities. And, as the Poor Knights experience shows, they must be fully protected. Allowing fishing in a marine reserve makes as much sense as allowing the most popular books in the library to be borrowed and never returned.