Oregon’s Marine Reserves: Science snapshots StoryMap

As 2019 draws to a close, it is time for me to reflect on my year as an Oregon Sea Grant Natural Resource Policy Fellow – and it’s time for me to post my farewell blog! My year assisting the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) to the Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC) has been an amazing opportunity, and I hope that my efforts to assist STAC as they prepare for the upcoming 2023 Marine Reserves assessment will benefit all Oregonians as the process moves forward.

As a fellow, I also had the opportunity to engage in science communication activities like blogging. Instead of my usual blog, I decided to take this opportunity to highlight some of the scientific research I learned about this year in the form of a StoryMap. It would be impossible for me to do justice to all the research that’s happening at Oregon’s five marine reserves, but I attempted to highlight these things I know:

  • cool science is happening
  • science requires creative and collaborative approaches
  • research projects happening in marine reserves are helping to broaden our understanding of Oregon’s nearshore

I can also say the following with confidence: science communication is hard work! I really appreciate all the scientists who agreed to be featured, and I also truly appreciate input and photographs provided by ODFW’s Marine Reserves Program. Any mistakes are mine. Effective scicommers are awesome. While I’m not including myself in the effective scicommers category, I hope that you enjoy my first StoryMap and learn a little about Oregon’s marine reserves in the process.

A Brief History of Oregon’s Marine Reserves

This week marks the 10 year anniversary of Oregon’s decision to pilot a system of marine reserves. On July 28, 2009, Gov. Kulongoski signed HB 30131, which directed the implementation of two pilot marine reserves at Redfish Rocks and Otter Rock. The bill also directed study of additional marine reserves using a community process, and as a result of this process, three additional marine reserves (Cape Falcon, Cascade Head, and Cape Perpetua) were designated during the 2012 legislative session. Oregon’s current system includes five no-take marine reserves (40 mi2) and nine adjacent marine protected areas (~77 mi2), an area that totals roughly 10% of Oregon’s Territorial Sea.

Ten years – the merest of moments geologically speaking, but a (somewhat) long time from a human point of view. Because 10-year anniversaries are often a time of reflection, let’s take this time to look back on all the sweet (and less than sweet) memories of Oregon’s relationship with the concept of marine reserves. The impetus for my reflection came from the fact that although my current duties are about looking forward, as Carl Sagan said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” So, I have certainly spent some time trying to better understand the policy landscape surrounding this issue. I have been assisting the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee as they prepare to submit a legislatively-mandated report to Oregon’s Legislative Assembly regarding the status of Oregon’s Marine Reserves in 2023; this report is to include “an assessment of social, economic and environmental factors related to reserves and protected areas” as well as “recommendations for administrative actions and legislative proposals related to the reserves and protected areas.”2 The report is to be prepared by an Oregon university, but making things a bit more complicated is that no funding was allocated in the bill for this assessment process.

But before we continue, we should get on the same page about terminology. Marine protected areas are defined as, “…any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.”3 Marine protected areas can allow many extractive uses with few protections or they may allow very little extraction with limited exceptions (for example, recreational harvest of certain species). Marine reserves are a special class of marine protected areas, where no extraction of living or non-living resources is allowed with the exception of take for scientific research. Marine reserves around the world have been established for different purposes, but the purpose of Oregon’s Marine Reserves is to “provide an additional tool to help protect, sustain or restore the nearshore marine ecosystem, its habitats, and species for the values they represent to present and future generations.” 4

Oregon’s foray into using marine reserves as a management tool began about 20 years ago; in 2000, Gov. Kitzhaber’s office requested that Oregon Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC) begin gathering information regarding marine reserves as a management tool. Over the next two years OPAC organized informational meetings with experts and regional natural resource managers, held public meetings with Oregon ocean stakeholders, and collected written comments, which typically landed on one of two opposite ends – very supportive or very opposed. In its 2002 Report and Recommendations to the Governor, OPAC recommended that Oregon should test a limited number of marine reserves, and that those reserves should be determined based on “…an open, public process with extensive stakeholder involvement.”5 The discussions and resulting report set off a contentious debate between industry, conservation groups, and the state government, ultimately postponing what was to come by about a decade. Industry groups and fishing communities voiced concerns that such designations would cause further economic harm to Oregon’s coastal communities, which were still reeling from the groundfish disaster and salmon crises of the 1990s. Various government entities and environmental groups indicated that such measures were needed to help avert such disasters in the future.

What changed in the intervening decade? Sentiment-wise, not a lot as far as I can tell. Staunch advocates remained staunch advocates and vocal opponents remained vocal opponents but political winds were shifting.  A number of major reports, the work of national and international scientific experts, sounded the alarm in no uncertain terms that human activities were causing major and detrimental impacts to ocean ecosystems and thus human well-being 6–8. Increasing interest in wave energy development raised a new set of concerns for the fishing industry and fishing communities.

And so, in 2005, Governor Kulongoski requested that OPAC re-visit marine reserves. OPAC’s Marine Reserves Working Group met several times over the next couple of years and in 2008, Executive Order 08-07 accelerated the marine reserves process in Oregon. In line with the process for extensive stakeholder involvement in siting and planning outlined in EO 08-07, community groups and citizens submitted 20 proposals, and on November 29, 2008, OPAC forwarded its recommendation on pilot sites and sites for further consideration to the Governor’s Office. The following November, after passage of HB 3013 (the legislation that established the pilot marine reserves), ODFW’s newly-established Marine Reserves Program worked with OPAC to form community teams to study the sites recommended for further evaluation. With the aid of a facilitator the community teams worked diligently over the next year, logging a total of 35 meetings and ~25,000 collective volunteer hours over an 11-month period to develop their final recommendations, which were submitted to the legislature in early 2011. Although legislation was introduced during the 2011 legislative session to establish the three new sites, negotiations were unsuccessful and the bill died in committee. Between the 2011 and 2012 sessions, the Coastal Caucus (the bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators representing coastal districts) worked to craft a plan that would receive support moving forward. On March 5, 2012, Gov. Kitzhaber signed SB 1510 and the period of marine reserves planning gave way to implementation.

One of the major concerns among opponents during the contentious first decade of marine reserve discussions was that we don’t understand enough about using marine reserves as a management tool. A common theme among proponents was that we can’t wait until we know all the answers and that science should help guide an adaptive management process.

So what have we learned? A quick Web of Science search reveals that since 2000, over 2000 peer-reviewed articles regarding marine reserves globally have been published, with >100 new papers every year since 2008. Change the topic search term to “marine protected areas” and the number of publications is more than doubled. The oldest marine reserves and protected areas are now decades old, and many publications in recent years have synthesized this wealth of data to examine the effectiveness of marine reserves, both from an ecological and a human well-being standpoint.

And as far as Oregon’s nearshore is concerned, the ODFW Marine Reserves Program’s research collaborations and monitoring efforts have contributed new understanding about Oregon’s notoriously difficult-to-study waters (I encourage you to visit the Reserves News to learn more about the research happening in the reserves). While the Marine Reserves Program’s eyes are on the ocean, the eyes of the nation will be on Oregon as the process unfolds. Nationally, Oregon has a reputation as a conservation leader and also a leader in collaborative governance processes that involve citizens in important land use and coastal management decisions – often referred to as “the Oregon Way.” Such participatory processes don’t usually make any one group happy, but they do have the ability to ensure that people feel heard. And when people feel that they had a place at the table, efforts are more likely to succeed.

What is the future of Oregon’s marine reserves system? One of the points of the mandated assessment is to provide valuable information to Oregon’s ocean stakeholders so that adaptive management as envisioned in OPAC’s 2008 Marine Reserve Policy Recommendations can take place. As the 2023 assessment nears, it is time to start thinking about this important next step. Given the current political climate and the still-raw emotions from the 2019 legislative session, it’s helpful to reflect on the fact that Oregonians can have difficult discussions, make tough compromises, and move forward together.


1.            House Bill 3013. Relating to ocean resources; and declaring an emergency. (2009).

2.            Senate Bill 1510: Relating to ocean resources; creating new provisions; amending ORS 196.540; and declaring an emergency. (2012).

3.            NOAA Marine Protected Areas Center. Definition and Classification System for US Marine Protected Areas.

4.            Ocean Policy Advisory Council. Oregon Marine Reserve Policy Recommendations: A Report to the Governor, State Agencies and Local Governments from OPAC. (2008).

5.            Ocean Policy Advisory Council. Report and Recommendation to the Governor: Oregon and Marine Reserves. (2002).

6.            Ecosystems and human well-being: synthesis. (Island Press, 2005).

7.            Pew Oceans Commission. America’s living oceans: charting a course for sea change. A report to the nation. (Pew Trusts, 2003).

8.            US Commission on Ocean Policy. An ocean blueprint for the 21st century. (US Commission on Ocean Policy, 2004).

Pondering the science-policy interface: Active listening and lifelong learning

The last year has been one of transition and change professionally – almost a year ago exactly, I successfully defended my dissertation. I feel very fortunate that I now have the opportunity to further broaden my experiences as an Oregon Sea Grant Natural Resources Policy fellow. My primary role as a fellow is to assist the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) as they carry out the legislatively-mandated Marine Reserves assessment process. The Oregon Legislative Assembly and other stakeholders will use information from a legislatively-mandated report, due in 2023, to inform adaptive management of Oregon’s Marine Reserves going into the future.

Celebrating my defense in May 2018 – smiles all around!

Although I haven’t blogged much in the past (once to be exact), I really enjoy reading science blogs and essays. I notice that many blogs in the marine science community involve a story about how the writer’s desire to work with marine ecosystems stems from the fact that they were raised near the ocean. I will just let you know right now – I was not. I was born in Kentucky, and in case you just consider that part of “flyover country” I will 1) be sad and 2) let you know that it’s roughly 500 miles, east or south, to the nearest coastal ocean.  The nearest beaches were those of man-made dammed lakes like Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, which are on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, respectively. Although I didn’t know it at the time, these lakes displaced ~2500 people and inundated many cultural and historical sites. At the time, I simply delighted in the fun that these not-quite-natural wonders offered: swimming, fishing, and hiking are just a few fond memories.

Growing up in a rural community, I wasn’t exposed to many scientists. I never really thought about science as a profession, and then I effectively ruled it out at a too-early age when I decided that math was too hard. Now, if I could go back, I’d like to tell my younger self a lot of things – but not writing off math at such an early age would be a big one. But early experiences like these, along with discovering the wonders of backpacking during my early 20s probably helped lead me back to school a few years later.

So at first, my desire to pursue a career in science was really driven by pure curiosity about the natural world I was spending more and more time in, but moving to Colorado during a major drought and wildfire period very quickly expanded my interests to include better understanding the ways humans both rely on and impact important natural resources. I happened to take my first-ever geology class unintentionally (I was planning to major in biology and it filled a needed elective spot). I arrived bleary-eyed at 8:00 AM so that I could also squeeze in 30 hours of work/week only to have my eyes opened to an entirely new world, and a career in water resources was born. As a master’s student studying how river systems change through time, I realized that I was very interested in applied research (how can lessons learned be translated into effective management actions), and a PhD in Environmental Resources & Policy broadened these interests even more – how do we get to policies that consider evidence from scientific disciplines (life, physical, social sciences) but also address other important concerns?

Although some may consider my outsider status a liability, I choose to look at my journey as an opportunity. I can’t help but be amazed by the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to ponder water and all that depends on it as a part of my academic career. From semi-arid headwaters streams that I could step across in sandals to the nation’s largest river swamp, I’ve had the chance to study water and the many ways we impact this vital resource. As an outsider, I don’t have many preconceived notions about whether marine reserves are “right” or “wrong” as a management tool, but I hope a few of the lessons I’ve learned so far will help me perform my work as I learn more about the relevant policy landscape. A few themes stand out and seem to be common regardless of the resource or its geographic location:

  • We (humans) have often believed natural resources to be inexhaustible in their bounty.
  • We altered/used the resources in many ways without fully understanding the consequences of our actions.
  • Many of these systems are resilient and we didn’t realize the impacts immediately.
  • We now understand that we are at risk of losing vital services these systems have historically provided to us.
  • Often, groups most dependent on these resources for their livelihoods are most impacted even though they are not typically the ones responsible for the major changes.
  • Often, groups dependent on these resources for their livelihoods have been left out of decision-making processes.

Well, these are complicated problems. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how various audiences do (or don’t) engage with science. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how lessons learned from science are used (or not) to make decisions. Many scientists realize the need to share the results of their research and why it’s important, but much evidence points to the fact that just expanding the availability of information doesn’t necessarily translate into science that that’s usable. Another really valuable component that could improve the science-policy interface, perhaps, is realizing that scientific findings are just one piece of information that ultimately affects policy; listening and trying to understand the other pieces are also important. Even though scientists are trained to be objective, the reality is that humans (including scientists!) make decisions based on other valid ways of knowing. I bring this up not because I’m an expert on the subject, but because I am genuinely interested in finding ways to improve “evidence-based decision making for sustainability.” 1

So the initial phase of my fellowship has been an intense phase of learning and listening. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with STAC members and ODFW’s Marine Reserves Team, and their insight and expertise have greatly improved my understanding of the science behind marine reserves. The resources available to me through Oregon Sea Grant – through conversations, publications like this one, and workshops and seminars – have proved to be invaluable resources for learning about coastal issues and how they affect local communities. My deep dive into Oregon’s Marine Reserves process so far has revealed this: the process wasn’t always pretty, it was sometimes contentious, but it has incorporated many of the factors needed for conservation success. And perhaps more importantly, it revealed this – all stakeholders ultimately want the same thing: healthy ocean ecosystems that will provide for current and future generations. There may be disagreement on how best to do this – but that’s where the listening comes in. We may not agree on all the finer points, but we can agree to listen to each other.

Participation in the many learning opportunities available through Oregon Sea Grant and Oregon State University has been a key part of my fellowship so far. Photo credit: James Dewhirst


  1. Bednarek, A. T. et al. Boundary spanning at the science–policy interface: the practitioners’ perspectives. Sustain. Sci. 13, 1175–1183 (2018).