MPAs with fisheries management objectives. Are they likely to work?
We've been asked to provide an opinion on this question by Pacific Island fisheries departments through the SPC Heads of Fisheries Meeting, for two years in a row now.
It's a question that I have automatically shied away from trying to answer because the whole issue of MPAs has become so political. It's one of these issues that polarises discussion - it's a question framed in black or white - you're either for MPAs or you are against them. If you say anything for them you are labelled as a "closed-minded conservationist" by certain sections of society, and if you say anything against them you are labelled as an "apologist for the fishing industry" by others.
But its a question that we have to say something about - its on the list of things that we have to tick off before the next SPC Heads of Fisheries Meeting or else I'll be looking for a new job. This blog is a useful opportunity to try and get some thoughts in order, and get a bit of feedback (if anyone is interested in saying anything).
And I'm going to upset both sides now by going down the middle.
I reckon that there are many things that MPAs are useful for, and there are other things that you will not achieve with an MPA - that some other management tool could do a whole lot better.
First of all, I've got no complaint against any MPA that is set up for the purpose of conserving an area for heritage purposes, or to keep an area in something like pristine condition, or to attract tourists, or for education, or suchlike goals.
My only complaint is about the advantages being claimed for fisheries out of MPAs.
I just can't see envisage many cases where you take an island, assess the fisheries production, set aside 30% of the fishing area to be banned to fishing, measure the fisheries production again, and find that the total production of the island has increased. Even after 10 years of protection.
As far as I can see, MPAs are only likely to be useful in fisheries management under certain conditions.
1. They are likely to be a useful management tool for species which have a "spatial bottleneck" in the lifecycle - when there is a place where they are exceptionally vulnerable to targeting, but equally amenable to protection. I reckon that area-protection is unequivocally useful for species which group occasionally into spawning aggregations (where do you think the word grouper came from :-) and for species that need to move between sea and river to spawn. However, this is nothing new to fisheries management, either traditional or modern. And you will probably need a different protected area for just about each species, since they don't all spawn at the same place.
2. Where there is gross overfishing - where the biomass has been fished well beyond the level that produces the optimum sustainable yield, and where a reduction in fishing effort will actually result in increased yield. Of course, this increased potential productivity will only be available to fishing if younger fish migrate readily out of the MPA and don't just stay there. And of course there are other fisheries management tools which are capable of reducing fishing effort in overfished fisheries (such as saying "no" to licence applications) and making the resultant sustainable increased production available for catching.
3. As a breeding refuge for "old mothers" who contribute disproportionately more to recruitment than the same weight of younger fish. Again, the resultant juveniles or larvae need to be capable of migrating out of the protected area in order to actually contribute to fisheries, and the old mothers need to stay inside the area. Maximum size limits might do the job better.
4. As a long-term but still temporary reserve for building up stocks for special occasions, such as a traditional funeral or wedding, or religious feast. Or as as a form of pulse-fishing, where fishing for certain species is only allowed during short "windows" of opportunity. This can be useful for non-food fisheries (such as mother of pearl shell) or as a rotating series of closed areas, for food or export fisheries. Such "temporary MPAs" are traditional in many areas of the Pacific, and can mitigate the angst that most people feel if they think their ownership rights are permanently subsumed by the State. But most authorities do not consider temporary MPAs to be MPAs at all. It is felt that to have any conservation benefit they must be permanent. This is a reasonable position, but remember here that we are not talking about MPAs for conservation benefit but for fisheries benefit.
Well, that's some of the possible advantages of MPAs in the management of certain fisheries. But I can also think of potential disadvantages.
1. MPAs are attractive to poaching, and unless they are well-respected or well-policed, years of accumulated benefit can be wiped out in just a few poaching episodes. Spending your enforcement resources on more readily-complied-with regulations across a whole island may be more effective in the long-term than concentrating them on absolutely protecting a proportion of your area.
2. If you kick the fishing community out of a particular area, they either need to find alternative livelihoods, or add to the fishing pressure on the surrounding area. And if you have a sustainable fishery in the surrounding area this additional pressure may be enough to collapse it. In short - setting up an MPA in an island where fisheries overall are at optimum sustainable levels may actually lead to fisheries collapse. You have to be sure that there is either gross overfishing occurring, that there is obvious "underfishing" occurring, or that alternative livelihoods are readily available. And that last one is a biggie. People usually go fishing because that is their chosen, preferred lifestyle, or because they are forced into getting their protein from the only source available to them. If alternative livelihoods were available, and preferable, they would probably be in them already. We are right now taking a look at the preceived outcomes of "alternative income generation" schemes for Pacific fisheries over the years, and there don't seem to be too many success stories. But that is another blog.
My worry is that coastal communities in the Pacific Islands are going to be told that MPAs are going to increase the amount of fish available to them as food. And I don't think this "available" increase is going to happen. People see the fish numbers increasing in reserve areas shortly after the declaration of protection, but nobody apparently looks at the production of the whole island. They just look at the increasing biomass within the reserve.
Again, I'm not disputing that biomass of fished species does normally increase in Pacific Island MPAs - just the assumption that this biomass will somehow lead to overall increased food production for the whole island. It will certainly produce greater stability in surrounding fisheries - but insurance is not free. It will certainly be beneficial as a potential tourist attraction - and this is possibly the most likely form of "alternative livelihood" to be considered - but tourism is not possible everywhere. It will certainly be beneficial in attracting organisations who have global objectives for conserving biological diversity and who may be willing to pay to see these goals achieved. But I worry that some of these organisations do NOT want to pay to see their goals achieved, and instead may try to claim that the coastal community will be compensated at some future date by increased food production, or that alternative livelihoods will be found and will be sustainable.
(Just think - how easy is would it be to change the economy of your own neighbourhood? If you work for an NGO or government, how easy would it be if someone said that your current livelihood was unsustainable, that you had to get out of it, but they had found a business opportunity for you. Just form a cooperative with your neighbours and apply for a loan ...)
It may possibly be beneficial for certain grossly-overfished and particularly vulnerable species - export species like sea-cucumber and some of the larger fishes taken by commercial spearfishing and for the live food-fish export trade. But here the most effective form of "MPA" is likely to be spawning aggregation site protection, and these are small, diverse, highly-targeted areas, usually seasonal, and this type of area protection does not fit the profile of the MPAs that are required for biodiversity protection or other purposes.
You might want to note that most Marine Protected Areas regulations only protect the area against fishing - they don't protect it against development-driven land-based impacts. In some coastal areas these impacts can be considerable. But this is a point that applies to all types of MPA - not just those with fisheries management goals.
One final point - and this is a claim that has been made at the very highest level - is that the declaration of substantial MPAs is going to be the simplest and most effective way of implementing the "ecosystem approach" to managing fisheries and marine ecosystems. I'm not going to go into a detailed set of reasons why this claim worries me - you can probably glean most of it from what I have said above.
I must stress again one last time - I am not against Marine Protected Areas. I personally feel that it is necessary to set aside areas as "wilderness" for all sorts of reasons. I also feel that MPAs are necessary to lend resilience to fishery and ecosystem management plans, as ecological "insurance". And MPAs are also useful where there is the possibility of developing alternative livelihoods from tourism, or in the case of areas blessed with high Pinctada margaritifera productivity - from black pearl farming etc. But all of these goals can only be achieved at a cost - the cost of reduced fishery production. I just don't like to see people told that there will be no cost - at least not without some proof that this will be so.