Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s)
Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) are designated areas of the ocean that have been afforded some level of restriction. MPA’s work much in the same way as a national park in the US or a Nature Reserve in the UK. They can be assigned for the protection and maintenance of marine biodiversity, habitats, and or cultural resources. A common misconception is that MPA’s mean no human presence is allowed within the confines of the area and that all fishing in any form is banned. While this would be an ideal scenario for many marine environments if they are to recover as fully and as quickly as possible, this may not be practical. Some MPA’s do ban all forms of fishing and they are called ‘Fully Protected Marine Reserves’ but often the protection is as simple as banning a certain fishing method, the protection of a single species or the implementation of seasonal fishing. Today, MPA’s are one of the most widely used fisheries management tools. While there are still some who believe they are only effective in a narrow range of situations, the more we learn about them the clearer it becomes that MPA’s are integral to the protection of the ocean and we desperately need more of them.
While it is not clear precisely how many MPA’s there are worldwide, in 2008 the United Nations estimated there to be around 5000. Many of them have been created on an ad hoc basis but since the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) an increasing number have been the result of structured planning processes. The CBD required that at least 10% of the world’s marine and coastal ecological regions be effectively conserved by 2012. Many countries have established their own national targets which provide an incentive for the introduction of a systematic conservation planning approach to the establishment of MPAs and while some nations have surpassed their goal or come close, overall we are a long way from this target – please click here for more details.
Ultimately, we are a long way from having enough MPA’s and as their importance to marine conservation becomes ever clearer, they are conspicuous by their relative absence. Currently only 0.6% of the ocean is protected, compared with over 13% of land and furthermore the vast majority of current MPA’s are not effectively managed or monitored.
The importance of MPA's and why we should care
To many it has been apparent for a long time that MPA’s were a vital and necessary tool in the effort to conserve marine biodiversity. However, in order to ascertain whether a tool works and in what circumstances, it must be tested, measured and reviewed. Unfortunately, this is more straightforward on land than in water. The time and resources required to assess marine environments mean that it is far more expensive and as a result questions have remained around the success of MPA’s for years. While it is now increasingly accepted that that MPA’s are fundamental to marine conservation, there are of course, things to consider when implementing them.
Commercial fishing is a complex process and is also a huge worldwide industry meaning that there are livelihoods to consider when proposing MPA’s. In some cases, creating MPA’s necessarily reduces the amount of available fishing ground and could mean that other areas become overcrowded and subsequently over-fished. Furthermore, in order to avoid this, fleets may be forced to travel further distances or use different equipment all of which may result in increased costs for the fishermen and then for the consumer. Smaller fishing operations simply may not be able to afford the increase in costs and may go out of business. Where possible an option in this case is to embrace the tourism industry that can flourish as a result of MPA’s whilst obviously making sure that the increase in tourism doesn’t undo the benefits of the protection in the first place but this is a fine balance.
Co-operation is also important when it comes to MPS’s since a large proportion if marine life is migratory or utilising large areas of ocean that may span more than one nations national water. It is therefore important that nations act together in coalition to protect whole regions. This is often a stumbling block since different nations have different priorities. If the main goal of an MPA is to help a species or group of species to recover from over-exploitation then success will undoubtedly be limited if their feeding ground is protected but their spawning site is not.
The goal of most MPA’s is to increase biodiversity within its boundaries and there is little disagreement about their ability to do this assuming that they are large enough for the intended objective. They can protect entire habitats and the biodiversity associated with them, preserve genetic diversity and ultimately the delicate balances that exist between all the components of an ecosystem. For a long time the main concerns were the affect they would have on the surrounding areas but in actual fact it has been shown that in most cases the protected area actually increases the abundance of fish outside the reserve. There are three main benefits of MPA’s to fisheries management:
- They support stock management including the protection of specific life stages (such as nursery grounds), protect critical functions (feeding grounds, spawning grounds), provision of spill over of exploited species, and provision of dispersion centres for supply of larvae to a fishery;
- They improve social-economic outcome for local communities. MPA’s benefit local fisheries by protecting fish from unsustainable harvesting during spawning and vulnerable life stages. Fishermen benefit when mature fish swim from protected areas into fishing grounds (‘spill over’) and by the movement of eggs, larvae and juvenile fishes out of protected areas (‘export’); and
- They improve the catch in nearby fisheries creating larger catches with increased body size and reducing the year to year variability in catches.
The solution: what we can do
Governments, environmentalists and fishermen working together is the only way an effective network of MPA’s can be implemented. In the short term, fishermen are often the party most affected by the MPA’s. As a result, fishermen and environmentalists are the best people to decide on locations that maximise the environmental benefits while minimising the impact on fishermen.
It is clear that MPA’s are a force for good and far more are needed if we are to try and reverse the far reaching problems that have resulted from overexploitation. However, it is also abundantly clear that unless the regulations and restrictions, no matter how well conceived, are enforced then MPA’s become no more than a label. Billions of dollars are spent by governments and non-government organisations every year but only a small proportion of this is directed to marine issues. While progress has been made in the last 20 years to address this imbalance there is a long way to go. Until money is invested in marine infrastructure so that we have organisations enforcing things like correct fishing methods, seasonal fishing and no-catch zones then little progress will be made. In addition, once headway is made with this we can increasingly consider MPA’s in international waters which are the biggest marine challenge when it comes to enforcing policy.
As is often the case, more people need to be aware of the problems and their solutions in order that we can make a difference. Once this happens and organisations start to work together for a better marine environment then we all become winners. We must act with urgency however, because with every passing day the human population increases, the damage worsens and we have more and more to lose.
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