This week, the International Port of Coos Bay decided not to recommend a marine reserve at Cape Arago – a site that includes Simpson Reef and North Cove, a rare elephant seal haul-out and great kelp bed just south of Coos Bay.
The Cape Arago/Seven Devils marine reserve has been hotly debated for years, but last March a 34-member stakeholder committee took a pivotal vote not to support any of the proposals to restrict or ban fishing in the stretch of Oregon’s ocean between Reedsport and Bandon. That gave the Port Commission the basis of its decision this week, though the board also left the door open to future discussions.
“At this point the community has said we aren’t ready to have a marine reserve or marine protected area at Cape Arago,” said Elise Hamner, the Port’s communications and community affairs coordinator. However, she said the jury is still out on the notion of putting a marine reserve somewhere in the region at some point. “We know this issue’s coming back. It’s not going away. I think this community agreed we want healthy fisheries healthy ecosystems out in our ocean. What people don’t agree on is how to go about that.”
Port leaders said they would be willing to revisit the issue as research findings come in from two pilot marine reserves on the Oregon Coast at Redfish Rocks in Port Orford and at Otter Rock in Lincoln City. Fishing restrictions in those areas kicked in this month, and scientists will be studying the effects from here on out.
Three other marine reserves have been recommended along the coast at Cape Perpetua between Florence and Newport, at Cascade Head north of Lincoln City, and at Cape Falcon, north of Manzanita. Supporters of the state’s marine reserve plan say the absence of a protected area near Coos Bay leaves a big gap in the network designed to protect and study Oregon’s near-shore ecosystem.
“There’s a very large gap in the Cape Arago area between Cape Perpetua and Redfish Rocks,” said Dave Lacey, who represented the marine reserve advocate group Our Ocean on the Port’s committee. “That’s twice the size of gap scientists are recommending for a network of marine reserves.”
The state of Oregon has been trying to create a network of marine reserves off the coast for more than a decade, but most of its attempts have faced outcries from coastal communities about the potential impacts to fishing and the local economy. Opposition in the Coos Bay area has been especially strong. That’s part of the reason why the Port of Coos Bay agreed in 2008 to organize a new, inclusive community discussion around the reserve proposed at Cape Arago.
The Port helped organize a 34-member committee representing fishermen, local residents, environmental groups and other stakeholders in 2009. But people involved in the review process say the committee was at a disadvantage because it didn’t have ecological or economic data on the region that might have helped determine whether the areas proposed as marine reserves fit the state mandate of being small enough to avoid economic impacts while being large enough to provide ecological value for the marine ecosystem.
Both Lacey and Hamner told me other similar stakeholder groups on the coast that went through a state-organized review process and were supplied with more economic and ecological information about the areas proposed for reserves.
Some of the Cape Arago review committee members say the deck was stacked from the outset of the Port’s process. The final vote was 23-11 in favor of the no-reserve option. The 11 dissenting votes wrote a 13-page opinion paper that argues the review process as a whole was slanted against marine reserves.