There are plenty of fish swimming in the sea, unless the fish are dead.

Marine reserves protect fish and other life in the ocean from the worst effects of human encroachment, according to a study released by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and published by a UCSB graduate student. The study’s findings, announced last weekend at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Francisco, prove reserves preserve sea life and can benefit sustainable fishing.

Pollution and fishing can devastate coastal ecosystems, said Steven Gaines, director of UCSB’s Marine Science Institute.

“It’s not like things on land,” Gaines said. “In the ocean, the effects of human interaction can be seen all the way to the bottom. Just by dragging something along the bottom has an effect. The purpose of reserves is to reduce the human impact.”

Ben Halpern, the UCSB Marine Ecology graduate student who published the study’s results, said marine reserves follow the same trends regardless of the size of the reserve.

“If you have 20 fish in a small reserve and 40 fish in a larger one, the general trend will be the same for both,” Halpern said. “So if the population doubles, it’ll be 40 fish and 80 fish. It’s encouraging to see that even very small reserves can work well.”

Gaines said the future focus of marine reserve establishments is on creating a network of multiple “no extraction” reserves of a variety of sizes. No extraction means things such as fishing and oil drilling will be prohibited. Fishing, however, will be allowed in the spaces between reserves, where “leakage” from the reserves fuels the population of fish.

“There’s more benefit with a network of reserves,” Gaines said. “It’s not like national parks where animals stay within a certain area. There is always animal movement in and out of marine reserves. Large reserves mean there is less leakage to the surrounding areas. More leakage from smaller reserves means the fisheries can benefit. Also, should there be a catastrophe such as an oil spill, it won’t wipe out every animal in the reserve.”

NCEAS recently recommended converting part of the National Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary to a reserve. A sanctuary classification only protects the area from oil drilling.

“We’ve recommended that 30 to 50 percent of it be set aside as a marine reserve,” NCEAS member and UCSB marine biology Professor Robert Warner said.

The significance of the research study plays a big part in the federal government’s role in establishing marine reserves, Warner said. Last year, former President Bill Clinton issued an executive order to start a committee to examine establishing marine reserves all over national waters. Congress wanted to rescind it based on the argument that there wasn’t enough knowledge of the benefits of marine reserves.

“It’s incorrect to say we don’t know enough,” Warner said. “This study shows that there is enough science to show how well marine reserves work. It’s a great tool for the conservation of biodiversity as well as for fisheries.”