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Fishing, Conservation and Marine Protected Areas: Let’s Work Together

March 28, 2013

Kirino Olpet, a local speargun fisherman and a Conservation Society of Pohnpei boat driver, fishing in the lagoon waters of Ant Atoll, Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia. Kirino searches for reef fish like parrot fish and trivali to feed his family, friends and colleagues. Photo by Nick Hall

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.

Breaking Stereotypes 

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.

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  1. Dear Mark,
    We have observed quite dramatic effects with an evaporate Ocean crystal Halite over ten years and can confirm its mathematical equilibrium is perhaps (subject to further research) the foundation stone of a reason to both protect our Oceans and prove a paradigm shift in Medicine,
    an open sourced project would progress this,
    Warm regards,
    Dathan Berry

  2. Anyone who is familiar with Mark Spalding’s tenure at the NRDC will take whatever he writes with a very large chunk of salt. He has been known to be a liar regarding a number of issues, including the issue over a desalination plant at Scammon’s Lagoon and regarding a Mitsubishi plant in Mexico.

    “Early on, I was clear in saying the whale
    biologists could be right, it won’t hurt the whales, but this project was an illegal precedent. It was going to be too complex to explain all these legal issues to people, and everyone knew the gray whale would impact with the American public.”

    Spalding, a sharp biologist who speaks fluent Spanish, spent several days meeting villagers, talking to salt plant people and fishermen, snapping photos from the air, digging up research, chatting with scientists and poring over the laws.

    Among his first moves, he suggested to NRDC that the company was secretly conspiring to close down
    the salt plant at Scammon’s Lagoon, and essentially shift the population of the dusty town of Guerrero Negro — with its untidy strip malls and bright lights — down to the tidy, proud village of Punta Abreojos.

    “Spalding, lacking so much as a single company memo to that effect, didn’t need proof. This was politics, not science. The rumor spread throughout the region. “The battle was to mold vivid impressions, not to prove some piece of data about the world market for salt,” he says.”

    Spalding doesn’t believe in science. He believes in manipulating people into giving their money to organizations Spalding is associated with. If he has to lie to get that money… well, that’s not a problem for him.

    1. Not sure who you are Stu, but these comments seem to come out of no-where and are un-connected with the article they purport to comment on.

      They reflect poorly. Particularly because I’m not the person you seem to dislike! There are two Mark Spaldings in international marine conservation and I’m the other one!

      Sadly I’ve never worked on whales, and nor do I speak Spanish. I do however hear great things about the “other” Mark Spalding, who heads up the Ocean Foundation.

      If you have any comments about the article they would be very welcome!



  3. If you’re not the Mark Spalding that used to head up the NRDC, then I apologize and withdraw my comment.

  4. A little narrow and out of touch, I think. Let’s point out some of the reality problems right here at home. Commercial fishing the Great Lakes. Let’s take a look at Lake Michigan. Wisconsin’s legislature and DNR favor commercial fishing. Once fish common are almost gone, 98% of yellow perch and smelt and 99% of chubs are gone. The invasive alewife is protected from nets but not the native perch, why? Sure people want to buy perch, but the total cost is ignored. Wisconsin’s commercial fishers are subsidized with sport license money, they receive their future rights to public fish for free, where all other public property is auctioned, yet they still can’t compete against Lake Erie catches. Illegal perch fishing wiped out the perch from Wisconsin’s waters in just 4 years and the perch still haven’t recovered 20 years later. Historically enforcement has proven almost impossible. Whereas once the poor, the retired, the bored could travel a few miles to catch perch from a pier or shore and supplement their diet with perch they themselves caught. Now they can only buy perch, yet the cost of buying that same protein is prohibitively expensive to most of those fishermen. Commercial fishing in this case removed perch from thousands of diets not added to them. It gave commercials a monopoly on distribution of perch protein. Then there is the economics. A sport caught perch is worth 10-20+ times as much to the economy as a netted perch. Commercials cost jobs. Lake Michigan history has shown that not one species of fish can be netted without lowering populations.
    Then there is the future. To meet demand, aquaculture will have to fill in. It’s unfair that new, struggling aquaculture has to compete against subsidized commercial fishers receiving public fish for free. In Lake Superior this foolishness goes farther. Wis. commercial Lake Trout fishers not only receive subsidies, but also see the pubic stock Lake Trout into Lake Superior for them to net.
    With perch numbers down 99%, why doesn’t the Wis. DNR stock them again? I believe that perch are not stocked again because to do so would see perch fishing closed to commercial fishing. So if the politics of just one State, looking to protect the profits of a couple of special interest groups keeps Lake Michigan fisheries from being restored, what chance an entire ocean? I think TNC should reevaluate their support of commercial fishing in certain waters.