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Home » Archives » April 2008 » The Aquatic Reserve

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04/10/2008: "The Aquatic Reserve"


By Janice Peterson

The following nine points represent, in my opinion, important questions, reservations, and criticisms of the Department of Natural Resources document requesting proposals for an aquatic reserve and the Marine Resources Committee’s ill-advised (and unauthorized) activity to support it.

1. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) request for aquatic reserve proposals is so ponderously written that much of it is impossible to understand. It appears to have been written by scientists for an audience of scientists even though the vast majority of those who will be affected if a San Juan County reserve materializes are non-scientists.

The Marine Resources Committee (MRC) proposal is easier to get through but still seems willfully obtuse. Is it necessary to cite “anthropogenic distress” rather than describing “human activity?” I have to wonder if there is method in this ferociously complicated writing.

Most people who are going about the business of earning a living and maintaining a household simply do not have the time to wade through these documents with the goals of understanding what is being said and determining whether an aquatic reserve will be an asset or a detriment to their lives.


2. My impression is that none of the aquatic reserve advocates really know what they are doing on more than a fundamental and often over-simplified level. The systems are complex, the species interact in unknown ways, the historic fluctuations in populations are mysterious, the impact of human beings is not demonstrably and significantly "degrading" (although that assumption is pervasive), the problems are not clearly set forth, the solutions are similarly vague, and the actions/regulations/restrictions the DNR and its representatives may undertake, in most cases, do not even purport to bring about clear advantages or solutions.

I am not being facetious in saying that this whole operation looks like a gigantic Petri dish in which those who claim ownership of the "best available science" will be able to intervene experimentally and as they please in the life of the San Juan Islands. The power the DNR will assume if the San Juan Islands become an aquatic preserve is beyond belief and measure. If ever there was a situation where the laws of unintended consequences are likely to appear, it is this one. (see footnote # 1)

3. Acknowledgment of impact on individual rights is almost completely absent but for the all-purpose "public good" of which the DNR and the MRC have taken ownership and the (in my opinion) paternalistic presumption to (obliquely) define it.

Underlying premises suggest that it is no matter of importance that lease-holders will likely lose those leases as soon as they expire, that recreational boating could be severely curtailed, that private property rights will be further eroded by countless restrictions on docks, buoys, boating, fishing, setting crab pots, etc., that islanders who make their living with reliance on the marine environment could lose their livelihood, that tourism is bound to be negatively affected, and that some probably anonymous collection of enforcers who "know" what constitutes the "public good" can deny just about any right any of us have in the name of environmental preservation and protection.

The aquatic reserve documents from the DNR and the MRC clearly place all marine species from eel grass to whales in a position hierarchically superior to human beings and when perceived interests conflict, there is no question about who/what will prevail (see footnote # 2)

4. The aquatic reserve is highly charged politically. I think that a “them” versus “us” sentiment on the island is really unfortunate because everyone in the San Juans wants to keep this incredibly wonderful environment, but some among us seem to have co-opted environmental protection on their own terms, with their own agendas, and with a good deal of power in achieving their aims regardless of opposition.

For example, the Friends of the San Juans seems to be everywhere, making recommendations, initiating law suits, conducting aerial surveys to discover un-permitted buoys, and serving on committees. They have a right to do these things, I do not doubt that they are sincere, and they have enormous financial backing, but the power the Friends exert locally concerns me because anyone who comes up against their interpretation of what’s best for the San Juans is just one person against a very powerful group that has no official elected status but exerts great influence.

I notice that some of the photographs in the MRC document were attributed to the Friends. The overall impression communicated in this document feels “clubby.” I see that those listed as proponents for the MRC’s aquatic reserve proposal are all interest groups who do not stand to lose much if anything if the reserve becomes a reality.

Where are the proponents among private landowners, recreational boaters, shoreline lease holders, etc.? And why is such advocacy completely absent? This is a troublesome issue because it is difficult to avoid sounding petty or petulant but I think many island residents are resentful and fearful. Standing up against groups who have successfully acquired the high ground in defining and applying standards for environmentalism regardless of the fallibility and intellectual frailty to which we are all subject at times, makes those who disagree or object feel like they are challenging motherhood and apple pie.

5. On what authority does the MRC decide that it is the “lead” on submitting the aquatic reserve proposal? The San Juan County Council is the appropriate authority, yet what I have read about the meeting designated for public input is that the MRC members took that responsibility on themselves.

6. We already have SO MUCH regulation in San Juan County. I won’t even begin to list all of the rules, restrictions, permits, processes, agencies, and other expensive and time-consuming obstacles one must negotiate in order to get anything built on the island, especially those things within reach of SEPA and other state and local bureaucracies with a declared interest in the waterfront. In my experience, bureaucracies are generally ineffective and fraught with errors and lack of accountability. This reserve would add another huge layer of bureaucracy to an already complex network of regulation.

7. 90 years. Think of it. 90 years is the lifetime of the aquatic reserve. This offers great advantages to the DNR (and the MRC for that matter) because none of their membership will live that long. Doug Sutherland will be a distant memory and the same will be true of the DNR members and the MRC. Grievous errors can be chalked off to previous regulators no longer active or long dead.

Decisions based on today’s best available science could turn out to be catastrophic 10 or 20 or 80 years from now but the accountability will be nil and generations of children yet unborn will be the beneficiaries of any bad judgment that inflicts harm on the environment or the people of San Juan County. Ironically, the life of the reserve is almost a century but the life of the process to evaluate and consider its merits/deficiencies before rushing headlong into this commitment seems to be a matter of weeks.

8. What are we going to get out of this? What benefits will result, not only to the marine environment but to the people? Will it cost the taxpayers bundles of money? To what end should the people of San Juan County forfeit a hefty amount of local control to accommodate the DNR’s regulatory apparatus?

9. Finally, although these initial impressions are already too lengthy, I am going to suggest a “stock issues” analysis of this whole thing (leftover from my career as a debate teacher) and do it as briefly as possible. If the local powers-that-be would apply something like this in depth, we might be able to better understand the pros and cons of an aquatic reserve.

The six stock issues or questions in this simple analytical framework are Harm, Inherency or Blame (structural and/or attitudinal), Significance, Persistence, Cost (in dollar terms and in the less tangible human impact), and Cure.

Harm: What is the harm in the present system? Define it, make it clear, and establish its perameters. Much of the writing in the DNR and MRC documents is unclear on the nature and extent of the harm. In some cases, they candidly admit that there is no harm at all, e.g. the waters of the San Juan Islands are in very good condition. If we are to establish a reserve on the basis of some hypothesized future harm, what is it? Why are we certain it will come to pass without intervention? In any case, it is foolhardy to set about grandiose solutions unless you understand the problem(s) first.

Inherency or Blame: If harm is established, where does the fault lie? Is it naturally occurring? Caused by humans? What? Is the harm structural or is it also attitudinal or clearly one or the other? Structural harm is inherent to the features and mechanisms of the perceived problem. In the case of the marine environment, we could say that over population of one species causing it to gobble up another less numerous species is a structural harm. This could include human activity as well, over-fishing for example.

Attitudinal inherency is not the nature of the thing but our perception of it. (This is a distinctly human element). If we like one species a lot (such as orcas) and don’t care much about another (such as eel grass), our preference can create an attitudinal stance that causes harm. Maybe we are too lazy to understand the complexity of eel grass in its environmental role so we ignore it. Or possibly, we develop incorrect hypotheses about what’s going on out there in Mosquito Pass, thus laying the groundwork for a bigger mess than we had in the first place (if, in fact, we had a mess at all). The point so far is that we cannot possibly hope to solve problems unless we carefully examine them and try to figure out why they are occurring.

Significance: Are we dealing with big problems or little problems? Again, the documents I have been reading from DNR and MRC are hazy on this. All of the identified harms need to be looked at in terms of their importance. Granted, with complex ecosystems this is not easy but the obligation is nevertheless crucial.

Persistence: Will the harms keep on going or will they just disappear on their own? Often in argumentation and debate, this stock issue is not too important but in the current situation it is VERY important. Species populations, for example, fluctuate. How many of the currently identified problems in our waters will take care of themselves over time? Are we being somewhat presumptuous in assuming that our intervention (“manipulation” the DNR calls it) is necessarily a good thing?

Cost: Present and future. How much is/are current harm(s) costing us? How much would the reserve cost us? This includes all the regulatory mechanisms, salaries for the regulators, outlay on equipment, and the lost livelihood to people who have leases, boats they use for fishing, and so forth. The other costs fall more in the area of emotional, psychological, and other human distress. (We could call this anthropogenic distress of a different color!)

Cure: How are we going to solve the problem(s)? Will the cure be worse than the problem itself? Will it create new and more difficult problems? Will it intersect with the harms? If there is no intersection between the harm and the cure – the problem and the solution – we will be back at square one. All of the harms examined should have corresponding solutions. It should also be noted that one of the greatest failings in problem-solving is the failure to critically examine the cure to see if it has worked.

This quick overview is incomplete and inadequate but I hope the basic point is clear. This is a means of analysis, a category scheme that allows methodical progress from problem to solution. If you look at the Contents page of the DNR document, you will see a listing of dozens of items with absolutely NO categories of analysis to guide the reader through the maze in a meaningful way. If you try to take notes as you read and fail to write down page numbers, I bet you will have a devil of a time – as I did – in finding that page again. The material does not flow in any sort of readable format. This, in my opinion is a major weakness.

In this essay I have identified some of the many problems I believe the DNR and the MRC are creating for our island and our county. I hope the citizens of San Juan County and the members of the County Council will reject the MRC proposal to establish a 90 year aquatic reserve in the San Juans.


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Footnotes:

(1) I cannot help but think of the profound impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and its enormous influence on ridding the planet of DDT. This very successful effort supported by the “best available science” of the period did indeed pretty much eliminate the use of this pesticide and, in the process, allowed malaria-carrying mosquito populations to flourish. Many scientists argue today that this enterprise was and is directly responsible for millions of deaths. The “best available science” today emphatically denies any objections to the prevailing “global warming” thesis, despite growing opposition and concern over the negative world-wide implications, and global warming appears prominently as a “major threat” in the documents supporting aquatic reserves.

(2) For example, “While the DNR manages for a balance of public benefits on all state-owned aquatic lands, the emphasis within reserves is on ensuring environmental protection. The other public benefits may take place within reserves, but they will be a lesser priority and may occur only if they meet the criteria established in this plan under Section 5.2. (Maury Island Aquatic Reserve Final Management Plan, Executive Summary, 2.1) Section 5.2 states, “leases in conflict with reserve status shall not be issued.””

(3) Is my impression wrong that Friends constitutes the majority of the MRC and that virtually no individuals representing recreational boating are included in the membership? Would anyone argue that the MRC is diversely representative of all the interested parties involved in the marine resources of San Juan County? Also, I have heard that the majority of the MRC members are paid by their respective groups. If this is true, the minority of members who have to take time out from work to attend frequent and lengthy meetings without monetary compensation are at a distinct disadvantage.

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