The MPA backlash has officially begun

Two new essays on the potential downside of MPAs – especially “super-sized MPAs”  – came out this week.

Super-sized MPAs and the marginalization of species conservation – by Nick Dulvy in Aquatic Conservation  download PDF

Environmental cost of conservation victories – by Ray Hilborn in PNAS  download PDF

For full disclosure, I was once a strong supporter of MPAs (and marine reserves in particular) and still am in principle; the problem is they often don’t work (and worse) in the systems I work in (coral reefs mainly in developing countries).

Ray’s piece first. Ray has been a vocal critic of MPAs for a long time.

In the United States, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the NW Hawaiian Islands became the first large-scalereserve closed to fishing in 2006 (1). This reserve is 90% the size of California and was followed by the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, about half the size of California, in 2009 (2). In total, the United States has established MPAs 19-times the size of California or roughly the area of the Continental United States.

These and other “super-sized MPAs” are widely celebrated as major conservation victories.  But are they? I really don’t think so but for different reasons than Ray, who is mainly concerned that they will simply displace fishing to other place (primarily to poorer nations):

Even if Australia never again caught a single fish, Australians would still be able to eat all they want or can afford. However, most of those fish would come from parts of the world where fisheries are poorly managed or from aquaculture in the developing world, rather than from well managed Australian fisheries.

Jay Stachowicz had this to say about that:  

Couldn’t Hilborn’s critique be applied to fishery management too? If we restrict fishing locally with traditional fisheries management that Hilborn frequently advocates, that just means people will go elsewhere to eat fish. Exactly the point of your “Let us eat other peoples fish” response to his NYT op ed.  Maybe he actually internalized some of that critique?

I see Ray’s point.  Yet I can think of several counter arguments to his concerns about the displacement of fishing caused by MPA implementation:

1) Fishing in some of the “super-sized MPAs”, especially the Papahanaumokuakea MNM, was very low before protection.  Although it is possible that in the absence of protection, fishing pressure would have increased.

2) Poaching and poor enforcement is so common in many of the MPAs I work in (mainly in the Caribbean and the Galapagos) I wonder whether they really effectively discourage local fishing.  (Although some clearly do.)  In fact, I suspect many MPAs attract and concentrate fishing pressure.

3) Spillover effects could or would prevent the need for fishery displacement – if by locally closing 20% of an area to fishing the net productivity of the fishery remains constant or is increased, this clearly would not lead to displacement (the key though is the presence of a meaningful degree of spillover).  (And spillover is one reason fishermen seem attracted to fishing near MPAs)

4) The proportion of no-take reserves and highly restrictive MPAs of the whole ocean, is still tiny.

As Jay pointed out, Ray seems to have adopted my related argument about fisheries displacement, which I outlined (ironically) in response to Ray’s NYT op ed “Let us eat fish”, in which he argued American fisheries have recovered from overfishing and thus we Americans should eat more fish.  I disagreed:

By arguing we should eat more fish, what Ray is really saying is that we should be eating more of other people’s fish. In 2009, NOAA reported that 84% of the seafood consumed in the US was imported and this figure is growing.

I am really psyched that Ray seems to have accepted my argument and I share his growing distrust of MPAs. Yet I think his displacement argument is a bit different from mine. Ray is using the displacement theory to argue against local fisheries restrictions where I am arguing that an increase in seafood consumption by rich nations would merely increase fishing (and fish farming) intensity elsewhere.  Also, Ray is focused exclusively on open ocean fisheries management in the US, Canada, and Australia.  My concerns are mainly about overfishing in the impoverished coastal topics.  So to be fair, we have very different perspectives on all of this.

Now on to Nick’s piece.  Nick Dulvy has as much fish and ocean conservation cred as anyone.  He has been working in marine ecology and conservation for decades, he has published some highly influential papers on fisheries and reef conservation (such as this one), and he co-chairs the IUCN shark specialist group.  He takes ocean conservation seriously.

Nick starts by framing the modern marine conservation movement, I think accurately;

Marine species conservation died prematurely early in the new millennium before it had a chance to grow and flourish. The revolution happened; the world turned and moved on to managing higher-order ecological processes and services. The revolutionary conservation and research agenda of the new millennium has at least four interrelated themes: super-sized marine protected areas (MPAs; Wood et al., 2008; Pala, 2013), the ecosystem approach to fisheries management (ICES, 2005), ecosystem services and the economic valuation of nature and the poverty alleviation paradigm (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; Sachs et al., 2009; Roe, 2013), plus the outlying game-changer of climate change (Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno, 2010). These themes all involve higher-level aggregate attributes and values of biodiversity.

Many marine protected areas are not sanctuaries in the sense that the animals inside are safe from fishing (and other damaging activities).

This is another pet peeve of mine: people, e.g., Ray, equating MPAs with marine reserves.  And ignoring for the moment the enforcement issue, some marine reserves do not restrict harvesting and should instead be called marine protected areas.  For example, the Galapagos Islands are in what is called the “Galapagos Marine Reserve” yet legal fishing is widespread and intense there.  The Galapagos is as overfished (legally) as anywhere I’ve ever been (well, except for Jamaica).   The no take reserves are tiny areas of shoreline (none in open water), most are poached intensively, and those that are not are practically inaccessible.  The whole thing is a fraud and everyone (tourists, scientists, conservationists) thinks the marine life in the Galapagos is somehow protected and pristine, just because there are some sea lions, turtles, and iguanas (stuff nobody wants to eat).  The edible and harvested species (such as lobster, pepino or sea cucumbers and “Bacalao” sailfin grouper Mycteroperca olfax) are highly depleted and quite rare at most sites Iv’e been to.

We assume that paper parks have no cost to conservation, is that true?

Is a paper park better than no park? Is a paper park better than using limited resources to tackle other conservation issues? One possible risk is that the paper park alone is perceived to be a conservation success, in terms of protecting species and sustaining fisheries (Rife et al., 2012).  By analogy to the enabling behaviour of ecological restoration, I wonder whether unenforced MPAs may be enabling continued overfishing by precluding fund-raising for effective species management and conservation.

I agree there must be huge costs, e.g.;  1) zillions of dollars and untold effort going into ineffective conservation strategies,  2) the sense of complacency we get when we think a place is “protected” such as the Galapagos: whew, at least somebody took care of that problem…

Nick ends with a section titled “But whatever happened to evidence-based species conservation?” This really is the rub isn’t it. In theory MPAs and marine reserves could do a lot, both for species and “higher-order ecological processes and services”. And there certainly is evidence that they do, but it is mainly from well-funded and managed reserves in the US and Australia – places not exactly representative of most of the ocean world. So why are we so focused on implementing them in places where we know they won’t work?  Or at the least, why don’t the organizations implementing them, do the science to figure out if they are effective, and if not make policy adjustments, etc.

These new essays by Hilborn and Dulvy are just the latests in a growing chorus of concerns and criticisms about the role and realized benefits of MPAs in ocean conservation.  Helen covered a similar piece by Mora and Sale (2011), again arguing that MPAs have been ineffective in preventing or reducing marine biodiversity losses.  There is also the influential piece in PLOS Biology by Cote and Darling (2010), which argues that MPAs could actually make coral reefs more susceptible to global warming.

Yet, marine reserves do not reduce the frequency or intensity of thermally induced coral bleaching [9],[14],[46] or bleaching-induced coral mortality compared to unprotected areas [47][49]. In fact, thermal stress can cause proportionally greater coral mortality of protected than unprotected corals [19],[47][49]. This effect is probably due to the different coral species composition between protected and unprotected sites. Indeed, the higher abundance of thermally sensitive corals, such as Acropora and Montipora, within marine reserves is associated with the increased susceptibility of protected coral assemblages to climate disturbances [19],[47],[48].

I am happy this topic is being discussed, out in the open (finally).  Im curious whether NGOs are listening.






2 responses to “The MPA backlash has officially begun”

  1. Yes, listening!
    One issue I rarely if ever see discussed with MPAs and Marine Reserves is the question: And what do the fishermen get in the meantime? I guess not taking into account the social dimension is a major reason for low conservation effects.
    I am not talking about even more subisidies for industrial fleets. I’m just talking about local fishermen e.g. in Senegal or India which got a no take reserve installed right at their beach and are consequently forced to drive their pirogue on a 10 km detour until they reach allowed waters where they have to compete with neighbours who have been fishing there long before. Who is paying them for fuel extra costs? Who is compensating their loss of time? And who is paying the difference between usual and actual catch volumes of all the loval fishermen concerned?
    MPAs and reserves should never been designed without discussion and consent of local fishing communities.
    Similar is true for the monitoring of such sites: Local fishermen are the ones who are most interested in stock rebuildung. As long as they are not engaged as rangers in their own sites, controlling lacks the feu sacré of the concerned.
    Combined with this, a third remark: Instead of interdicting fishing to local fishermen, would it not be wiser to let them continue their daily work within a strict framework of guidelines (gear, season, catch volume) to have them daily on-site and to help local communities to survive.
    A forth and last one comes out of this: To create alternatives in local economic development is the strongest strategy to reduce the pressure made by local fishermen onto the marine resources.

  2. Christopher Pala

    You might be intersted in this story I published today,
    It’s an expanded version of this one, in the SF Chronicle, published last Friday.
    which itself is an pmplification of this one in Science
    All comments welcome.

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