CORVALLIS, Ore. - Experts say in a new federal report that progress is being made nationally in the move towards a system of marine protected areas, diverse stakeholders are involved in a positive dialogue, and an era of integrated marine protection is possible for sustaining fisheries and conserving the cultural and natural heritage of America's oceans.

Even as some parts of the country - especially Oregon - are facing contentious debates about the need or plans for marine reserves, other parts of the U.S. are moving ahead more steadily with this approach, said Mark Hixon, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and chair of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee.

The committee last month released a compilation of its recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Interior, Hixon said, with encouraging findings about the developing process for organizing the nation's marine protected areas into an effective, integrated system.

"This national committee is composed of 30 stakeholders from across the nation, including representatives of groups with vastly different world views," Hixon said.

"We include commercial and recreational fishermen, social and natural scientists, environmental advocates, state and tribal representatives, and ocean industry people such as oil and recreation experts," he said. "What's most important is that, on a federal level, we're listening to and learning from each other, and are making real progress reaching consensus."

Among the general conclusions of the report:

    Marine protected areas are fundamental tools for ecosystem-based management, an integrated approach to managing marine resources from the perspective of the entire ocean system, including humans.
    The highest priorities for protection include critical habitat of threatened and endangered species, reproduction and nursery areas of marine species, and cultural and historic resources listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
    Effective leadership will be needed from both the top and bottom to achieve the political will and funding that will be necessary for success.
    Any effective program must have widespread participation and mechanisms to ensure compliance, as well as public education and workable incentives for cooperation.
    The federal government should provide the funding and incentives to help move this process forward, and consider such initiatives as tax breaks or new job training for those who are affected by marine protected areas.

Nationally, Hixon said, there are about 1,600 marine areas that have been identified with some type of geographically specific restriction or regulation. This year, the federal government will identify which of these sites truly qualify as "marine protected areas," and those sites will be invited to join the national system.

"The seemingly large number of ocean areas with some degree of protection sounds more impressive than it is," Hixon said. "In reality we have a very loose collection of sites, many with practically no protection or regulations, and very little coordination to accomplish the broader goals of ecosystem-based management."

However, participants in the federal advisory committee agree that an immediate challenge is to take these existing protected areas and develop ways to integrate them into a more effective network, Hixon said. After that, new additions to the system will be considered, he said.

The group outlined a process for determining which marine protected sites will be most appropriate for the initial national system. They also specified what should be in a workable management plan for marine protected areas; suggested some ways incentives for cooperation might be structured; and reviewed the ecological, social and economic benefits and costs that might be expected.

Hixon believes that intact and resilient ecosystems provided by marine protected areas are the best safeguard against the vagaries of global climate change.

Some states are moving ahead with the concept more quickly than others, Hixon said. California is already establishing a statewide network of marine reserves, Washington has reserves in Puget Sound plus the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and Alaska and Hawaii, along with the East and Gulf Coasts, have a variety of marine protected areas.

According to Hixon, Oregon is lagging the field. Even though it has a comparatively large ocean coastal area and some of the nation's most important fisheries, it has a single marine reserve in state waters, about one-half square mile at Whale Cove, near Newport. Informal initiatives since the 1980s, and now formal state processes towards establishing marine reserves off Oregon, have remained highly contentious, Hixon said.

"People all over the country are seeing that marine protected areas are a functional tool to help address the multiple, ongoing, and potential threats facing the future of our ocean resources," Hixon said.

"In some places, there's still very strong resistance to closing any part of the ocean, for any reason," he said. "That's something we just have to work through, using fair and broadly participatory processes that have been successful elsewhere in the country."

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Mark Hixon,