It took more than a decade to set aside the first marine protected areas off the South Carolina coast. It took half that time to protect a bottom of irreplaceable deep-sea coral a little farther out.
The difference was, that for the corals, federal regulators brought deep-sea anglers in on the discussion. If there was one "take away" last week from the Charleston meeting of a little known federal committee, that might have been it.
"There's confusion about what a marine protected area is. People mistakenly assume it's a no-take area. It's important to get buy-in from the public," said Myra Brouwer, a South Atlantic Fishery Management Council biologist.
The Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee is as obscure as its work is evident. The committee is a result of a 2000 law establishing a system of existing reserves much like the national park system. Its job is to bring together the various agencies in charge of protected areas and the people who use them, and to make recommendations on managing and potentially augmenting the reserves.
At the Charleston meeting, along with panels of national and local managers, the committee heard from a half-dozen speakers representing 50 to 60 recreational and commercial anglers.
Marine protected areas have been set aside onshore and offshore in the marine environment by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to protect natural and cultural resources. In South Carolina, they include areas as diverse as the Charleston Bump, a huge rock outcropping 80 miles out from its namesake, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The areas are set aside as rich habitats and nurseries. But they also are sought-after hunting and fishing grounds, and a chafing source of dispute among regulators, sportsmen and commercial harvesters. The management council has been creating the areas along with severely restricting fishing up and down the coast. Anglers say they are gradually being closed out of the ocean.
The issues raised in the Southeast "are very similar to what we hear across the country," said Joe Uravitch, National Marine Protected Areas Center director. People are concerned about the natural resources, but they're also concerned about how the management of the resources is going to affect them and their livelihoods, he said.
"I can see marine protected areas are beneficial for some things," said Mark Brown, a Shem Creek charter boat captain who spoke at the meeting. "I think the public needs to stay involved with things like this so they know what's going on. Tell them what you do for a living. Tell them how your livelihood pivots on the fishery. Put a face on the economic side."