By Mark Spalding, senior scientist, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team
I have a confession to make: I’m a marine scientist who thinks marine protected areas (MPAs) aren’t going to be nearly enough to save our oceans, and that fishing needs to be part of the solution too.
Here’s why: As a conservationist, I’ve seen how MPAs can protect habitat and allow fish populations to flourish, but I’ve also seen how effective fisheries management can balance economic needs with those of a healthy ocean. Within the next generation the global population will reach 9 billion, and it’s our shared challenge to implement the next generation of ocean management techniques to allow us to restore and maintain our oceans against this ever-rising wall of pressure.
That means working together.
The Spillover Effect
When asked, many fishers don’t want MPAs, and it’s not always surprising. MPAs come in many forms, but almost invariably they impose rules on fishing, because fishing is often one of the most significant direct threats to marine resources. But fishing is one of the oldest activities known to humanity. What right does the biodiversity brigade have to come in pontificating about protection?
But surely something needs to be done — only 15% of the world’s assessed fish stocks are in the “safe” categories of under-exploited or moderately exploited. That leaves 85% over-fished, depleted or at full exploitation, right on the edge of decline. Even from the fishers’ perspective this is deeply troubling — despite increasing efforts and investments, many are catching fewer and fewer fish. If stocks were better managed they could be making more money and ensuring their long-term future.
Meanwhile, the results of protection can be dramatic — the best-managed marine reserves are tightly packed with vast schools of fish and with healthy ecosystem builders such as corals and kelps. A few studies have suggested that such closed areas can lead to significant benefits to fisheries, with both larvae and adult fish “spilling over” into adjacent areas and leading to increased fish catches over all.
But some studies have been less clear: only a few MPAs have been designed with fisheries enhancement in mind, so while there might be spillover it may not be enough. This is serious because, let’s face it, from an already struggling fisher’s perspective, closing off even part of the fishing ground is a pretty drastic measure if you’re not even sure there will be benefits down the line.
Can fishing and conservation goals go hand-in-hand?
Interestingly, there are hundreds of places where the stereotypes don’t fit. These include some excellent MPAs that have been established with full consultation and involvement with fishers. But also many places where fishing is sustainable and biodiversity remains rich, or where once decimated fish-stocks are recovering fast.
If you look at how that is happening you find that the fishing community have developed numerous approaches:
- sometimes it’s restricting who can fish, as is the case in community-managed fisheries and licensing-regimes;
- elsewhere there are strict regulations on how much can be caught (and increasingly sophisticated means of enforcing this);
- there are seasonal restrictions, with certain fisheries being closed during spawning seasons or when the fish are heavy with eggs;
- some regulations restrict certain types of fishing gear to avoid lasting habitat damage or to prevent unwanted bycatch; and
- Individual restrictions may also be placed on what gets taken, protecting juvenile fish or crabs or rarer species.
And any or all of these regulations will be placed in particular areas, some indeed may look quite like MPAs, but under a different name. We can think of this huge range of measures as the “who-what-when-where-how” approach to fisheries.
In some cases specific, locally-tailored approaches can be far more effective than hard-to-enforce MPAs. Protecting species during their breeding season might be enough to drive a comeback. Banning narrow meshes in fisheries might enable fish to survive to adulthood and help grow the stock. And when you get to the wide-ranging and migratory species even the very largest MPAs might only protect them for a few months a year or less. So why not try to enact these “who-what-when-where-how” restrictions across an entire ocean basin?
Let’s Start Thinking About the Entire Ocean
There’s another thought nagging at me here. Under the commitments signed by the international community, nations have set themselves the target of moving marine protection towards 10% of the ocean by 2020 (the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11). The conservation lobby is struggling hard to hold them to this. But isn’t this actually a rather low bar for measuring success? What about the other 90%?
I bet that if you sat down with most fishers you’d find that they would demand a very different target than 10% protection. In fact a new consortium of fishers, industry players and NGOs have now signed up to get 50% of the world’s fish stocks onto a sustainable footing in 10 years. That’s not a spatial goal I know, but why would they want less than 100% well managed in the long run?
We need to start thinking about the entire ocean, not just a few patches. To do this we’re also going have to get out of our bunkers. Fisheries regulations can create a management regime that is far more effective than many MPAs, even if they aren’t counted in the formal tallies. They can impact conservation across entire oceans, while ensuring fish-supplies for future generations.
It would be naïve to think that all conflicts will be avoided — biodiversity conservation is a different goal from sustainable fisheries and there will be places where we disagree, but this needs to be worked through. By working together we also form a truly powerful lobby: we won’t always agree on everything — biodiversity conservation may sometimes have different demands from sustainable fishing.
But by collaborating to build science-based solutions, and by combining forces to oppose pollution from industry, or from growing populations, we stand a much better chance of overcoming the challenges of vast dead zones at our river-mouths, and of feeding future generations.
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.