Filmmaker, fishermen, and scientist team would create marine sanctuaries

A documentary film released this month makes the case that urgent action is needed to restore the health of the oceans, and one step may be to close some areas to fishing.

Dr. Sylvia Earle sits on a tiny one person submersible called the Deep Worker. — Kip Evans

Documentary filmmaker Bob Nixon and a group of local fishermen have enlisted in the effort spearheaded by Sylvia Earle, one of the world’s most respected oceanographers, to create marine sanctuaries, and they want to begin in the waters near Martha’s Vineyard.

The idea is to create what Ms. Earle has dubbed “hope spots,” a large tract of ocean where no fishing, dumping, or ecological alteration is allowed. The tracts are chosen because of a unique or critical environmental trait that deserves protection. The idea is to provide a protected area where aquatic life can regenerate.

The effort is an attempt to preserve and rebuild fish stocks that have dwindled to the point where entire species are threatened, as is much of the once thriving New England fishing industry.

The concept received an international boost last week with the release of the documentary Mission Blue, which profiles the life of Ms. Earle and her continuous, urgent campaign to save the world’s oceans. The film was produced by Mr. Nixon, a seasonal resident of Chilmark, and Fisher Stevens.

“No ocean, no us,” Ms. Earle says in the film, a phrase she repeats in a dizzying schedule of speaking engagements around the world. “Sixty years ago, when I began exploring the ocean, no one imagined that we could do anything to harm it. If we continue business as usual, we’re in real trouble. The ocean is dying.”

Mr. Nixon, owner of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant, is an award winning documentary filmmaker who spends a lot of time on Vineyard waters. An avid conservationist and outdoorsman, he said the film demonstrates how the world’s oceans are in immediate peril, including the waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard.

“I’ve been coming here since I was 15,” Mr. Nixon said in a recent telephone conversation. “I’ve seen the stripers go down. I was around when the Derby had a moratorium, and I’ve seen them come back. But everyone is aware they’re not here like they used to be.”

Three years ago, Mr. Nixon arranged what turned into a series of meetings and strategy sessions among Island fishing interests and Ms. Earle.

“It was an unlikely meeting,” Mr. Nixon said. “Sylvia has very strong opinions about fishing and overfishing and industrial fishing. The fishermen felt they had a common bond with her, they both saw the impact of these industrial fleets. They are embracing her idea of marine sanctuaries as a self interest. For their livelihood to continue, they are convinced spawning areas and critical habitat need to be preserved.”

That view may be slightly optimistic. Among the first group that met with Ms. Earle three years ago were William “Buddy” Vanderhoop of Aquinnah, a well-known charter fisherman, charter fishing captain Jennifer Clark, commercial fisherman Alec Gale, and Chilmark selectman Warren Doty, who has been involved in the commercial fishing industry in several capacities.

Mr. Vanderhoop has become a strong advocate of creating “hope spots” in Vineyard waters.

“You just can’t keep taking fish,” Mr. Vanderhoop told The Times. “I’d like for my kids to have as good a time fishing as I have all my life. We need to make a couple of safe havens where the fish can spawn. Give them a break.”

Mr. Vanderhoop puts much of the blame for species decline on large scale commercial fishing. He believes a practice known as pair trawling, where two commercial fishing boats drag a large net between them, primarily to catch herring, a critical food source for striped bass and other species.

“With all the technology out there, fish don’t have a chance,” he said. “You take away the forage fish, then you have no large fish coming in because there’s no bait. The general public doesn’t know this is happening out there, which is a real shame. Ecologically, it’s just stupid.”

But not everyone agrees with the concept of marine sanctuaries, and not everyone agrees they should be in Vineyard waters.

“I’m not in favor of it at all,” said Alec Gale, a Menemsha based commercial fisherman and co-owner of the Menemsha Fish House, a wholesale seafood market. “That’s where our fish come from. It would be basically like cutting our own throat. Why would I be in favor of something that is going to end up killing me?”

Mr. Doty said he attended the original meeting, but had no communication with the group since then, and they have not reviewed with him the three areas under consideration.

This summer, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established a process for communities to nominate areas of the ocean as national marine.

Among the criteria are whether the area “supports present and potential economic uses, such as: tourism; commercial and recreational fishing; subsistence and traditional uses; diving; and other recreational uses that depend on conservation and management of the area’s resources,” according to NOAA.

The group has identified three areas to investigate as possible marine sanctuaries. One area is southwest of Gay Head, in Rhode Island Sound. Another tract is just off Noman’s Land, south of Martha’s Vineyard. A third area is well offshore, south of Nantucket in an area known as Banana Shoals.

Mr. Nixon and Ms. Earle are organizing diving expeditions on the three sites beginning this month, to help gather information necessary for the nomination process.