If I told you there was a simple way to increase human well-being, alleviate poverty, lower inequality, facilitate adaption against climate change, increase catch for fishers, and grow larger fish that reproduce a lot, you’d probably call me a dreamer.
And, I definitely am a dreamer, but I am also a scientist. And the thing is: all those benefits have been shown for marine protected areas. Yes, all of them.
As always, though, simple does not mean easy, so let’s unpack that a bit.
Chapter 1: Types of marine protection
When it comes to marine protection, the actual level of protection varies widely. Fully-protected areas (FPMPA) are usually seen as areas where no extractive or destructive activities are allowed. Highly-protected areas are one level below that and allow light extractive activities.
When we look at MPA, we need to keep the level of protection into account to have a better idea of how effective thy are. This is about quality at least as much as it is about quantity. Well, and reality but we’ll get to that in a bit.
As we saw last time, there is also a lot of difference in size. Most MPA are tiny, local MPA with only a few very large MPA making up a large percentage of the ocean protection coverage.
Those large-scale MPA (LSMPA) can take entire ecosystems into account and even benefit migratory species, as O’Leary et al. showed in a 2018 study. They also pointed out that the larger the MPA, the more it can still protect as ranges shift with warming temperatures thanks to the climate crisis.
At this point, LSMPA only cover less than 5% of the ocean but this already includes the ranges of at least 11,900 species. A good quarter of the species even have more than 10% of their range covered with that little coverage. They also found that the protected range will increase (or rather become more important) as scientists expect the ranges of species to reduce quite a bit by 2100. This sounds like good news but keep in mind that just because the percentage of protected range of a species rises doesn’t mean they have more protection. It just means their overall range is going down. I sure hope, we also increase protection but that’s not what this is about.
One of the big problems is that we currently aim for quantity rather than quality. I talked to a few scientists while researching my thesis and they agreed that there was a shitton of potential for greenwashing both in the tourism and seafood sectors. Numbers look good.
MPA sites are often not chosen with science in mind. Many of them are opportunistic even though we know that proper planning is important for the efficiency of MPA. Nonetheless, even ad-hoc planned MPA often lead to benefits for the affected ecosystems, so it’s still better than nothing, I guess.
But why go through all this trouble at all? Well, because it works.
Chapter 2: Well, it works.
Two scientists called Sala Giakoumi looked at a lot of other studies in something called a meta-analysis. Meta-analysis just means that their study was based on a lot of other studies. They found that fish biomass, so how much fish there is in an area by weight, was on average 670% greater inside fully-protected MPA than in unprotected areas.
They also found that biomass in partially-protected areas varies widely. But on average, even these partially-protected areas had 184% more fish biomass than unprotected areas. To be fair, a lot of them had no effect at all, so this is definitely an average pushed up by some working extremely well.
What I found even more interesting was that they found FPMPA able to restore the ecosystem which partially and unprotected areas often weren’t able to do. And the restorative power of protecting nature have been shown time and again.
Use urchin barrens as an example, so areas where sea urchins have taken over where my favorite ecosystem, kelp forests, used to thrive. These are becoming frustratingly common all over the world. As so often, the climate crisis and pressure from human impact are fucking with the balance here. There’s a video on keystone species somewhere that explains how otters, urchins, and all that.
You might remember the CROP reserve near Leigh in New Zealand from earlier episodes. It’s one of the first ones, probably even the first one. They established a protected area for scientific study which has been used as a base-line for many other studies. Protecting the reserve changed the landscape from barren rocks with pink encrusting algae and large urchins to seaweed that provides a habitat to a large range of biodiversity.
Chapter 3: Enter the opposition
Even though everything looked pretty promising, the late 1990s brought opposition to the conversation around MPA effectiveness. Some fishers and fisheries scientists, mostly from the US, began arguing that MPA can harm fishing.
I was able to speak to one of the leading opponents of MPA, Ray Hilborn who has released a book on the matter, as well. It was hard to stay professional, calm, and interested, as he diverted attention from the matters I asked about by redirecting to blaming oil and gas, land-based agriculture, and anything and everything that’s not fishing. He spoke ill of scientists who had done studies he didn’t agree with, and seemed to think the entire idea of ocean protection laughable.
People like Hilborn have long shifted the burden of proof toward conservationists. But opposition also lead to a lot more research showing the clear benefits of MPA, even for the very fisheries that are opposing it.
But I get it. It’s hard to give up the identity you have built up if your identity depends on the label your job gives you.
The other day, my husband and I watched a documentary on the dwindling eel populations of the Pacific and Europe. The NDR had interviewed fishers, scientists, and activists, and it was hard to listen to some of them. Some were asking for ten to fifteen years more to show that their hatchery system yielded benefits, others were complaining that banning eel fishing wasn’t an option, because they’d need to drive a garbage truck if that happened. Don’t get me wrong. I fully understand that banning fishing would suck a shitton for the individual fishers. They’d need to find another way to support themselves (though, these particular people were in Germany, so there is a social system to fall back on). But, they also talked at length about how long they’ve known about the dire state of eel populations. One fisher talked about his son leaving the industry. But he’s still holding on. His other son even joined the operation. To me, this is poor planning. If everyone involved knows that it is a matter of years before eel fishing is no longer an option, why would you go into eel fishery? At this point, we can give the eels a chance to recover if, and only if, we stop fucking with them. No hatcheries that help only those fishing for the eels and not the eels. No fishing. Period. If we keep going the way we are, we buy the fishers a few years at a high cost. The hatchery system that has kept them going for so long has bought them time. Time that tax payers and the eels pay for. And in the case of eels, this isn’t even a hatchery with captive bread eels. We still haven’t figured out how to breed them. No, this means taking the young from their spawning grounds in the thousands, shipping them to hatcheries that then pass some of the little glass eels on to release schemes while a lot of them get fed and land on dinner plates.
But back to some actual valid criticism before I get to angry at short-sighted individuals and corporate greed.
Criticism of MPA
There are some valid arguments against MPA, at least the way they are currently done. The big issues are usually with (1) placement, governance, and management; (2) political expediency; and (3) social–ecological value and cost, as a meta-study by O’Leary et al. found in 2018.
One of the big arguments against MPA is that especially the larger ones are placed in remote areas far from commercial interest and thus use up the limited resources more urgently needed elsewhere. Others argue that this is more a matter of going for the low-hanging fruit first. O’Leary et al. even take it a step further and point out that these areas might become commercially interesting in the future, so protecting them now might prevent an issue before it even comes up. Just think about that Ross Sea MPA we talked about last time where China and Russia kept opposing the international effort for years, because they were thinking there might be fishing there in the future.
What is too remote to be exploited now, might not necessarily remain so. Protecting areas before they degrade can be seen as insurance.
Hilborn and his fellow opponents of MPA argue that the funds would be better placed in the hands of other tools like fisheries management.
Again, there is some truth to their argument. Effective fisheries management can achieve some of the benefits of MPA, especially when it comes to rebuilding overexploited stocks. We can see this at work in some of the better-managed regions such as the Norwegian and Barents Seas where some stocks are at or near sustainable exploitation levels. However, this is not the global norm. In 2019, the EU even proposed to continue overfishing past the 2020 deadline of the Common Fisheries Policy.
And keep in mind that fisheries management only gives a crap about species that are commercially interesting. They can’t take the ecosystem, interactions, and so on into account.
In addition, some people think MPA undermine social justice. There have been cases where this happened, especially when it comes to the rights of indigenous populations. One example of this was the aftermath of the 2011 Rena oil spill near the Astrolabe Reef which caused a long legal battle between the local indigenous tribes and the NZ government.
But indigenous communities are usually not what these arguments are about. They typically mean the displacement of extractive and consumptive activities of for-profit organization. Fisheries and related industries worry about their income. And there is a definite danger of a short-term loss of income, this is usually quickly outweighed by increased profitability in the longer term.
And again, we’re talking about buying time here. We can’t keep going as we are. In a few years, there is no way to regulate something that’s long dead.
So while I’m all for protecting the rights of indigenous populations, I don’t think we need to protect the destructive livelihood of for-profit organizations that have long known about the state of the ocean and decided to keep clinging until there were claw-marks all over the topic.
Don’t even get me started on the argument that humans are part of nature and thus fishing is natural. Yes, yes, it is. But then we need new terminology, as Ballatine points out in his 2014 paper. This is arguing semantics and leading no-where.
The same people usually say fishing is a basic human right, but what about the human rights of other people? The children who will never see a fish in their natural habitat because we’ve eaten them all or, even worse, thrown them away.
The supply of seafood
The main argument against MPA is usually that it will reduce the supply of seafood. But as O’Leary et al point out in that same study mentioned above, low-income areas are already suffering from the effects of overfishing and this is thought to only get worse as the climate crisis progresses.
I mean, it probably isn’t good for the local supply of fish if the local fishers have to give up because giant operations send their fleets across the globe to exploit the waters.
Studies have long shown that fishers, too, benefit from MPA. Studies done at that CROP reserve in New Zealand I’ve mentioned a few times show that there isn’t just a higher biomass inside MPA, but also in the areas surrounding them.
I read a study by Marshall et al. from 2019 that even suggested that the spillover effect has even been underestimated so far. You know, fish fecundity scales hyperallometric. Phew, those are some tough words. But it’s simple: it essentially just means that a fish twice the size produces more than twice the number of eggs and typically spawns more often with larger offspring. Almost all fisheries models ignore this.
Critics (if they accept that spillover from MPA to adjacent fishing grounds is a thing) say that this benefit will be undone because fishers will just relocate to fish the border of the MPA and snatch them all up. That’s definitely a thing. Fishing the line is indeed common but it could actually be something to benefit local farmers. O’Leary et al (2018) reasonably suggest that only local fleets should be allowed to fish the line.
Look at Mauritius as an example: the domestic fleet is mostly small artisanal fishers but a large portion of the catch goes to non-local vessels from the EU, Russia, China, and other countries. There, placing protection inside their EEZ and controlling access to who can fish their waters would probably make things a lot better for the environment and the local population.
I’m not saying we should not take fishers into account. We definitely should. But fisheries get displaced, so moved to new locations, all the time. They follow trends in the market, the cost of fishing (e.g. fuel cost) might change to open up new areas or make them unprofitable, and adjust when there are changes to taxes or subsidies. Fishers need to adapt. That’s always been the case. So, why is it suddenly an argument now that the health of the entire planet is at risk?
If fishers hold on to the status quo tight enough to leave clawmarks instead of reading the room, seeing the signs, or whatever you wanna call it, that’s on them, though.
“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”
― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
In general, the argument that MPA lock up important fisheries resources mostly ignores two very obvious facts: spill-over to adjacent fisheries and the sustainability of stocks. The current overfishing practices are putting fish stocks at risk globally, as was explained above, and thus fishers are already losing income due to their current practice and will continue to do so in the future. Protection and better fisheries management might worsen such short-term losses but would benefit everyone in the long run.
Just to put things into perspective: a study by Sala et al. from 2021 actually compared different scenarios in terms of biodiversity benefits, climate benefits, and food yield. To my surprise, they found that we can protect as much as 71% of the ocean without fucking up food provisions. And just to make this absolutely clear: if we didn’t give a fuck about nature at all and only cared about food, we should still be protecting 28% strategically to maximize how much can be fished and taken out of the ocean. Fucked up, right?
We’ve protected a few percent of the ocean only because people keep complaining. Why do people not understand that we need to protect and act now or there won’t be anything left to fight over?