Renowned fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn recently wrote an article questioning whether marine protected areas are all that they are cut out to be when you take a global view (June 4, 2013, PNAS 110:9187).
He pointed out that while Australia may have done a wonderful job setting up its own marine protected areas, it still consumes a lot of fish, and imports 85% of that fish. Most of Australia’s fish imports are from capture fisheries or aquaculture in Vietnam, China and Thailand.
Thinking globally, would it be better for Australia to have less of its own coastal waters in no-take zones and have well-managed Australian fisheries, or alternatively rely on these imports from Asia where the environmental impacts may well be quite damaging?
The same reasoning can be applied to other conservation actions. In 2011, Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt (PNAS 2011 108 (48) 19127-19129) pointed out that lands designated as nature preserves are lands that cannot yield timber or food, and that in turn may require increases in timber and food imports.
Taking this one step further, importing agricultural and timber products often amounts to exporting land conversion to some other country. For example, between 1990 and 2004, countries that enacted conservation set aside policies increased their cereal imports by 42% compared to an average 3.5% increase among countries that did not pursue conservation set asides. Vietnam has been reforesting since 1987, but it has been doing so by importing more wood, half of which is illegally harvested.
None of this is to argue against protected areas or countries that do a good job taking care of their own lands and waters.
The key lesson is to realize when we impose strong conservation policy in one country, there is almost always leakage of our impacts, such that protected areas set up in one country may simply mean damage is done elsewhere.
That leakage can be minimized by increased efficiencies and technology. Ultimately, with another 3 billion people to be added to the planet, it should be obvious that any global solution must combine altered consumption patterns, increased efficiencies and new technologies that substitute renewables for fossil fuels, find building materials that do not require cutting down forests, and that identify protein sources that do not require vast amounts of land.
It could be that conservation’s best friend will be massive single-species plantations of rapidly growing trees, large-scale and high tech fish farms, and industrial agriculture. These are exactly the opposite of what we find glorified in our local farmer’s markets, with wild fish, and locally organically grown vegetables. If land is in short supply, and it is, then both marine and terrestrial conservation need to think about what is the best way to get the food and timber we need with minimum global conversion of forests.
Conservation is driven and supported by those of us with a passion for our favorite local habitats and retreats, the best hikes in the Cascades or the Smoky Mountains, the Pacific reef we once went snorkeling on. Land trusts, from whence The Nature Conservancy was born, are all about local actions. But now that we are interested in the global environment, we need to have a global understanding of the consequences of all of our local actions.