Marine protected areas affect the lives of countless people. I could even argue, as MPA affect the global climate, they influence everyone.
Marine protection, just like the creation of national parks and reserves on land, is often a trade-off between the income of those benefiting from exploitation and the benefits of protection. One of the biggest problems is that the benefits are often long-term while the costs are often short-term. It takes a few years for reserve successes to become visible but they are long-lasting thereafter. It is those initial years that often cause the issues but indirect benefits are also often overlooked.
The success of MPA strongly depends on the area design, biodiversity before implementation, their management and enforcement, but also the enforcement of fisheries management in surrounding areas.
There are still some critics clinging to arguments that benefits for fisheries are nonexistent or only happen under certain conditions. I spoke to one of them. It wasn’t easy to stay professional. Meanwhile, the evidence supporting MPA is mounting.
But just like with climate change, you only need to sew doubt to delay or prevent change and maintain the status quo. Or pretend you are doing something…
In interviews during my thesis, multiple experts worried that the current quantitative goals such as the 30×30 goal of the CBD might lead to more paper parks and little actual protection. The discrepancy between quality and quantity of marine protection was a common theme in the responses I received from experts. The risk of political power choosing vague protection that books numbers on paper was unilaterally seen as an issue with how MPA are done right now.
Professor Pablo Marquet (2023), chair of the Biodiversity are of the Climate Change Committee at the Science Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Ministry of Chile, told me that he believes most stakeholders have not internalized that we all have a big problem that all of us need to solve cooperatively and that it will be highly important to better communicate the tragedy of the commons happening everywhere.
The various stakeholders in MPA creation and management
Who exactly is involved in the creation and management of an MPA varies widely. All their perspectives need to be taken into account to even think about success. Properly involving all stakeholders early in the process helps with acceptance, involvement, and early participation.
There are usually resource users, so fishers and other people getting something out of the area, interest groups, coastal communities, managers, and politicians which all have unique perspectives, values, needs, and opinions, but also different styles of communication.
When the Channel Islands, a group of protected islands off the coast of California where I went diving while we lived there, was a great example of proper communication:
They created a group of representatives and involved a science advisory panel, as well as a team of socioeconomists. They created texts, graphics, and a film to explain the science to a wider public. The most successful part of their communication was a leaflet created with both scientists and communication experts. This leaflet was actually so popular internationally that they had to reprint and ended up creating a website with the information. Their unique approach included both very simple graphics that contained the key information in an easily everybody format, an expanded bullet-point summary and longer texts with the details. They managed to communicate with all of their stakeholders this way.
Often overlooked are indigenous communities, though they could be one of the greatest allies in protecting the coastlines. They’ve been stewards of the land for a long time and haven’t forgotten how nature works.
Indigenous people often have an increased interest in protection, as their way of life is closely linked to ecosystems. They are also more affected by the effects of climate change. Their practice of tending to the environment, sometimes lending a helping hand by improving spawning grounds or transferring lavae make indigenous people important in nature protection.
Some areas have recognized the value of their indigenous communities and involved them in planning and maintenance to varying degrees, especially in Oceania. I spoke with the science coordinator for the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance in Canada, an alliance formed to provide technical support and coordination for the joint work of four indigenous peoples of Canada on fisheries and marine spatial planning. He explained that recent developments there are promising and could become a model for other parts of the world. For most of its colonial history, he said, Canada was lagging behind on establishment, management, and enforcement of MPA, and the rights of First Nations were frequently undermined but policy improvements beginning in the early 2000s have lead to improvements (Frid, 2023).
But there is doubt on both sides here. One of the experts I spoke with, called today’s indigenous people “invariably just modern economic animals” and cautioned that handing out rights to indigenous communities should be done with conditions and oversight attached.
Similarly, indigenous people can be reluctant to share information, as this has led to exploitation in the past, for example when disclosure lead to increased fishing pressure for Pacific Herring in the Northern Shelf Bioregion.
Finding common ground and a basis of trust between the parties might turn out to be essential for marine protection, something that will need to be explored in further studies.
The negative perception of MPA is likely worsened by the persistence of paper parks which do not reach the promised results due to ineffective management and enforcement. A lack of enforcement often leads to a lack of compliance. However, good leadership and involving of all stakeholders early can be more effective than enforcement alone.
You can see this at the CROP marine reserve in New Zealand where visitors frequently report suspicious activity and their mere presence as visitors of the reserve is often enough to deter poachers.
Enforcement is necessary, especially as an early step, but it can’t be the long-term solution. We need a more socio-legal approach here. Educational activities, building trust, and increasing environmental knowledge are important. People need to feel connected to the environment and the ’causes’ to want to act.
The influence of the general public
“Most of the public […] are oblivious to what is going on underneath the waves (Jones, 2023)”.
Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness of the public when it comes to environmental issues and the ocean, something called the ‘Blue Planet’ effect.
The name goes back to a wide-spread documentary series of the same name by the BBC released in 2001. The 2017 sequel has widely been credited with raising awareness for plastic pollution in the oceans. Julia Jones and her fellow paper authors compared recent documentaries (Our Planet, Blue Planet II) to look at how much of the word count was about conservation issues and anthropogenic influences. For Our Planet it was almost a sixths of the total word-count with similar levels in Blue Planet II.
Visually, however, little of the series showed anthropogenic impacts and most of the conservation-related script was read while showing beautiful nature scenes. Our Planet even had the footage of human impact, as they released them in a short clip on their website. Jones et al. suggest that this is a clear editorial decision to not change the feeling of the documentary.
Documentaries, after all, are usually not created for environmental but rather economic reasons, so there is still a tendency to use camera angles that intentionally hide the non-natural elements. It is easy to think “See, there’s still untouched nature all over the place” when watching these kinds of documentaries but there is also an upside to the money involved. Our Planet advertised at the US Super Bowl final, on London tube trains, and in various other places where non-documentary watching people might see it too.
There is an increasing disconnect between humans and nature as urban populations with little access to green spaces are growing. Showing these urban dwellers what they stand to lose, I think, will be essential, but also hard.
MPA can be educational tools in and of themselves. The CROP reserve in NZ, again as the example, was designated for scientific study but attracts thousands of visitors each year. I, myself, have dived there, while we lived nearby. The fish inside the reserve are much less shy than elsewhere, allowing for an immersive experience. Children can learn early what nature should look like, so they grow into nature-aware adults.
While public ground-swell will be needed for political action, greenwashing has become a major issue in marketing.
In one of the rare cases where I agreed with Ray Hilborn, renowned pro-fisheries scientist and author of Ocean Recovery: A sustainable future for global fisheries during our conversation, was that it is much easier to convince government officials of vague protections that boost their conservation on paper than actual effective measures.
It can be hard to know who to trust. Add the fact that scientists and the general public essentially speak different languages, and you’ve got real issues. Just take uncertainty as an example. Scientists are never certain of things. To other scientists, known the degree of uncertainty and all the shortfalls of the experimental design, makes things more reliable and believable. But this can be hard for non-science people who can think that “we just don’t know enough” which just isn’t true.
It’s like your bathroom scale. It might be off by a tiny bit but you still get an idea of your weight and especially the way your weight changes over time, even if your scale is technically 100 grams or so off each time.
In her book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Naomi Klein calls out environmental groups that she said did a lot of harm by appearing to protect the environment while investing heavily in e.g. fossil fuels. During our conversation, Hilborn (2023) seconded this issue when he suggested that The Pew Charitable Trusts were receiving funding from the oil industry.
To further skew the view of the public and stakeholders, news outlets often only report on issues directly affecting humans with less coverage of smaller, lesser-known species not regarded as equally important.
With some of the players in the conversation keen on skewing perceptions on purpose and news outlets reporting on what gains attention (and thus money), it can be hard for the public to distinguish between truth and perception.
During our conversation, Ray Hilborn explained that some environmental organizations were receiving funding from the oil industry to shift blame onto fisheries while Greenpeace denounced Hilborn for having received supposedly undeclared funding from the seafood industry and going as far as calling him an ‘overfishing denier’ (Greenpeace, 2017). Even with hours of research, it can be hard to distinguish facts from fiction, and the general public is further lacking the language to understand the scientific studies involved.
We need public support for political action. Every major change has started with a few people seen as freaks before it turned out they had a point. And in this case, we know that climate change is real, that overfishing is real, and that our planet and ocean are in fucking dire straits.
Unfortunately for all of us, a few major players spreading doubt to further their own economic gains is derailing efforts to educate the public in a time where we need the public to get up and yell for change more than ever.
The ocean affects all of us. We need it, so we need to change.