Reconciling fisheries management and conservation with MPAs

EM5 19 FISH MPAsThe regulation of fisheries is an ancient practice dating back over 700 years.

Seven hundred years ago, on the island that is now New Zealand, the Maori people – the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand – practiced some of the earliest fisheries management in the world. Their consciousness of the ocean’s fragility materialized from their belief in the god of the sea, Tangaroa. In order to appease Tangaroa, the Maori made deliberate efforts to restrain from overfishing, and instead, extracted only what they needed; sometimes returning parts of their catch to the sea. Other island states in Oceania were also known to give certain fishing areas time to recover when signs of overfishing became apparent. 

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 5/2019.

With such a long history of fisheries management, it appears to be in humans very nature to at least attempt to moderate fishing, if not for the sake of the preservation of the environment, then at least to guarantee the existence of plentiful fishing stocks for years to come. Today the practice of fisheries management has evolved to new levels of sophistication, but the fundamental goal remains the same: Protecting fishery resources so they are available in the future. The world’s oceans are interlaced with various fisheries management approaches like catch shares and individual transferable quotas which are enforced by both national and multinational bodies. One general category of ocean conservation is the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs). MPAs are a globally recognized tool for managing marine life across the globe.

Marine Protected Areas – An overview

The Atlas of Marine Protection, a database of marine protected areas created by the Marine Conservation Institute, an NGO based in the US, defines four different categories of MPAs based on their level of preservation. According to the Atlas, an MPA can be fully protected: No extractive or destructive activities are allowed, highly protected: Only light extractive activities are allowed, lightly protected: Some protections exists but moderate to significant extraction and impacts are allowed, and finally, minimally protected: Extensive extraction and other impacts are allowed while still providing some conservation benefit to the area. The management goals for any given MPA can be diverse. Certain protected areas may restrict some forms of fishing equipment while others might bar extraction entirely. As long as there is a restriction in place with the intention of conserving the local ecosystem the area can be considered an MPA. To date, 4.8% of the world’s oceans are protected by one of these types of MPAs. Of the current MPAs, only half of them, or 2.2% of the world’s oceans, are strongly protected and completely prohibit extraction. While an exact figure is difficult to ascertain – namely because what exactly constitutes and MPA is ambiguous –, roughly 11,000 MPAs have been created by 65 countries and territories. Nations with strong colonial legacies, like the UK and France, have established a notable number of MPAs because of the wide access they have to the ocean from their former empires.  The majority of MPAs are small, many are no larger than one square kilometer, but notable exceptions include the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Ras Mohammad Park Complex in Egypt and the Great Barrier reef. Larger MPAs also tend to exist out in open ocean where there is less fishing and economic opportunity.  Often MPAs are made in conjunction with one another forming a network. The purpose of MPA networks is for individual MPAs with diverse protection levels to work together to achieve objectives a single reserve could not. MPA networks have been established in Australia, the Red Sea, Mexico and the Gulf of Aden amongst other regions.

With so many different methods of fisheries management, and the need for ocean conservation intensifying, it is essential to analyze the effectiveness of various forms of management. One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to “conserve at least 10 per cent of costal and marine areas, consistent with national and domestic law and based on the best available scientific information” by 2020. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has even more ambitious targets, aiming to lock 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas by 2030. MPAs are being used across the globe – especially in Oceania, North America and Europe – to edge the world closer to achieving this goal, but the effectiveness of MPAs is controversial.

MPAs can’t solve every problem

It is a misconception to believe that once a marine area is “protected” it is out of harm’s way. There are a host of threats to marine species MPA’s cannot protect against. The shortcomings of the MPA spanning the Great Barrier Reef typifies this debate. As one of the seven wonders of the world, it is no wonder the Great Barrier has been protected by one of the largest MPAs. The marine park spans over 3,000 km and defends the world largest collection of coral and over 1,500 species of tropical fish – or at least it attempts to. Hard coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef it currently at record lows. A report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that hard coral in the northern region is at just 14%. The loss in hard coral is being caused by a combination of increasing water temperature, and the growing prevalence of tropical cyclones.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that 99% of the Great Barrier Reefs coral could be lost if the world does not avoid warming beyond the 2-degree Celsius threshold. The degradation of the Great Barrier Reef in spite of its protection under an MPA demonstrates aspects of ocean conservation an MPA simply cannot influence. A number of European Union-designated MPAs are failing short of protecting threatened biodiversity as well. An investigation conducted by Dalhousie University, which measured the levels of industrial fishing in 727 MPAs in the European Union found trawl fishing was 38% higher in protected areas then in non-protected areas, perhaps because of the better fishing yields within MPAs. Although MPAs do not, by definition, preclude extraction, researches at Dalhousie University were dumbfounded by the results which seemed to suggest that MPAs could have a negative effect on conservation efforts. While it shouldn’t be a surprise that MPAs are not unassailable in their ability to conserve marine organisms, the lack of requirements for any specific management objectives may give a false sense of optimism regarding what exactly an MPA can protect.  

Conservation at the expense of fishing

Closely related to the perceived ineffectiveness of MPAs in certain parts of the world is the clash of interests over what MPAs should aim to achieve. Stakeholders in the implementation of MPAs include environmental agencies, fisheries agencies and local communities, and they may all have slightly different goals for various MPAs. Fisheries agencies, for example, might be interested in the maintenance of fish stocks, while conservation groups may advocate forbidding extraction. One report found after surveying both conservation and fisheries agencies that 25% of fisheries and 30% of biodiversity objectives were considered potential sources of conflict for the other party. A strict definition of what an MPA is does not exist, and this might be part of the problem. The FAO defines an MPA as “any marine geographical areas that is afforded greater protection than the surrounding waters for biodiversity conservation or fisheries management purposes.” IUCN’s definition is slightly more specific requiring that in the case of “conflict nature conservation objectives will be the priority.” The management objectives within an MPA can vary from specific species conservation to seabed protection. Importantly, an MPA does not necessary preclude extraction or fishing. Thus, MPAs which are created with the objectives of maintaining fish stocks tend to fall short or even conflict with conservation goals, while protected areas that prioritize conservation and ban extraction threaten the activities of fishing companies.

One of the major criticisms of MPAs with conservation management objectives is the damage they cause to fishing stocks. While it is widely accepted that there are extensive ecological benefits of strongly protected MPAs for organisms within their boundaries, the impact of the MPA on the wider seascape is less clear. MPAs draw their strength from limiting fishing activities – there is no real way from them to prevent other threats to biodiversity like global warming, oil spills, ocean acidification etc. And so, this begs the question, how effective are MPAs at regulating fishing? An article published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science argues MPAs do very little, and possibly even exacerbate the depletion of fishing stocks. MPAs displace fishing efforts to adjacent waters, resulting in overfishing. While the fish within the MPA are protected, the displaced fishing vessels intensify extraction elsewhere, exhausting those stocks. Moreover, the establishment of MPAs creates incentives for illegal fishing because fish size within protected areas tends to be larger than in non-protected areas. Thus, properly evaluating the effectiveness of MPAs requires the comparison of the benefits of conserving biodiversity within the protected area to the potential drawbacks of relocating fishing to other areas.

New research published in Ocean & Coastal Management, a journal, however, suggests we may be underestimating the role MPAs can play for the replenishment of fished populations. According to the research, one hectare of protected (no extraction) marine area produces more than five times the fish of its unprotected counterpart. The large increase in fish production within the protected area results in spillover into the non-protected area that offsets displaced fishing efforts. These findings suggest MPAs with conservation management objectives may be less detrimental to fishing catches in nearby areas than previously thought. Traditional models operated under the assumption that fish reproduction ability is proportional to their mass. But new research published in Science suggests that larger mothers contribute disproportionately to population replenishment. This is excellent news for MPAs because on average, fish weight 109% more within an MPA then outside, contributing to a 175% increase in fish production. In other words, doubling the mass of a fish more than doubles its reproductive output, (these numbers very according to species). Even though fully protected MPAs restrict access to the fish, fishers still benefit from their disproportionate effect on fish numbers. These benefits have been measured in actual fisheries. Researches from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, a French public research institution, found that fish catches were 25% higher on the edges of protected areas in western Africa. The positive effects could be observed up to 2.5 km away from the protected area.

The spillover effect remains incredibly difficult to verify, and although fishers remain sceptical, one thing all experts agree on is for MPAs to effectively bolsters the number of fish available for catch, their location and size are critically important. Over the past decade California has had some successes with the creation of an MPA network that spans 18% of the state’s waters. The MPAs are small, and clustered close enough together so fish born in one no extraction zone can relocate to an area where fishing remains legal. Finding the perfect size for an MPA is no easy task. If you make it to small there will be no real benefit because fish will move in and out of the reserve to frequently and be caught. If it’s to large there won’t be a spillover affect to offset the displaced fishing efforts. Moreover, different species have disparate movement patterns, so there is no single gold standard MPA size for all marine life. Instead, regional consideration of fishing practices is essential when designing and planning future MPAs.

When fishers and conservation groups can work together and create mutually beneficial MPAs, the result is a rare win-win for both the environment and fishing. In Indonesia’s Seraya Besar fish stocks started to shrivel as a result of the dying reef which could no longer support marine life. Fishers and non-profit reef conservation organizations teamed up and created an MPA which enabled the regrowth of the reef and boosted fish stocks for the fishers.

For years the debate between the conflicting goals of conservation and fisheries management has threatened to hinder the development of MPA networks across the globe. New research, however, might be able to reconcile the competing interests of fishers and conservationists. More work is needed to quantify how the spillover effect compensates for the displacement of fishing, if at all. More crucially, as the deadline for protecting a certain proportion of the world’s oceans advances, local governments and multinational organizations must carefully consider the locations of new MPAs. The successful establishment of effective MPA networks hinges on the reconciliation between the competing goals of fishers and conservationists which can only be achieved through dialogue and cooperation.

Tyler Skow