Taking the P out of Marine Protected Areas?

The Scottish government has recently announced plans to double the areas of Marine Protected Areas in its waters with plans including 11 new MPAs and 9 Special Areas of Conservation. Somewhat predictably perhaps various conservation groups have been supportive of the measures announced although continue to seek further designations. Also somewhat predictably perhaps fishing organisations such as the Scottish Fishermens’ Federation (SFF) have accused the Scottish Fisheries minister of making irrational and damaging decisions.

The SFF represent inshore fishermen from rural communities on the West Coast who are particularly vulnerable to exclusion from areas they have fished for generations. These fishing communities, major employers on some areas, are already challenged by the discard ban which will prevent fishermen from throwing unwanted catch back into the sea and a by raft of complex rules and regulations that control when, where and what they can fish for. One of the greatest challenges they are facing now is that fish stocks are bouncing back and it’s difficult to put a net in the water without catching fish

Proponents of MPAs suggest that they are the obvious solution to the challenges that our oceans are facing. They suggest that they are easy to enforce, don’t require evidence and are going to improve the health of our fisheries (Hilborn, 2014). They seem like such an obvious solution and there is no doubt that excluding fishermen can protect vulnerable seabed habitats such as mearl beds and coral reefs from particular types of fishing. However, in most areas around the UK the seabed is soft sediment habitat. There is little evidence that trawling impacts on these habitats or banning it improves fish stocks. In fact for some species such as Nephrops (scampi/langoustine), repeated trawling appears to improve stocks (Ungfors et al., 2013).

Recent studies in Australia, which has some of the most stringent marine protection in the world, showed that when you reduce the area that fishermen can access they catch fewer fish by an amount proportional to the area they are excluded from (Kearney & Farebrother, 2014). Fisherfolk are starting to consider themselves as conservation refugees – marginalised by a society that while happy to take the fruits of their labour see them as cheats and liars, taking something for nothing. In one fisheries textbook the attitude of many to fisherfolk is summed up as:

The greatest doubt cast upon the biblical miracles is the fact that most of the witnesses were fishermen

The truth is that fishermen are businessmen trying to make a living, they have families and communities and a culture as different to that of mainstream society as that of Gypsies.

Society seems to enjoy the fruits of agriculture where we plant monocultures, devastate biodiversity, raise animals in sometimes questionable conditions and heavily subsidise an industry in the name of food security.  In contrast fishermen depend on healthy ecosystems to make a living and capture wild fish that have been reared by nature. They are suffering from a modern version of the clearances in the form of ocean grabbing. With the fishing industry there is a drive to further marginalise them by pushing them out of the areas they have been fishing for generations whether or not there is evidence to support it – an abuse of the precautionary principle (i.e. the idea that we should avoid doing anything that might damage the environment) if ever there was one. A true application of this principle would be to avoid changing management approaches until there was evidence that changes would be of benefit – not something conservation organisations want to hear.

It is an unavoidable fact that fishing involves taking fish out of the sea and will have some impact on their populations and their habitats. There needs to be balance between how much we take and leaving a root stock of fish to ensure there are fish available to take next year. If we protect our own seas too much we, like Australia, will export our environmental damage to countries with weaker enforcement and management, increase food miles and increase our dependency on foodstuffs such as farmed salmon and livestock where the production is potentially more damaging to the environment (Kearney & Farebrother, 2014).

Globally, the development of MPAs can sometimes have nothing or little to do with conservation. In the case of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean the MPA is illegally used as a shield by the UK government to justify exclusion of Chagossians from their islands which are now host to an important US air and naval base  (Dunne et al., 2014). The waters around Chagos were traditionally fished by Mauritians but now only rich yachties are able to ply the waters. Off the Californian coast MPAs have been supported or opposed by big oil money ($266 million over 10 years) depending on the business advantage. Some MPAs developed in this region have infringed on indigenous folks’ rights to fish and gather food but permit industrial aquaculture, oil exploration/extraction, pollution and fracking. In the Seychelles externally funded MPAs have been developed that will exclude local fishermen from traditionally exploited areas while at the same time foreign fleets can exploit tuna stocks through rights purchased by the EU.

I am not anti-conservation and, although I work with them and try to offer support, I’m not a fisheries industry stooge. I just feel very uncomfortable that the prevailing view of marine conservation appears to be to exclude folks that have been working on the sea for generations. I feel this discomfort especially when other forms of usage such as pollution, oil industry, offshore windfarms appear to be less hampered or have the financial might to barge through to their goals. The sea, morally, belongs to fishers as much as land belongs to long established farmers and whatever we do should be done in partnership with the fishing industry – in my view they are the route to a solution and should be encouraged (or even forced) to take responsibility. I also don’t like the oft cited statistic that “only 4%/5%/10% of the sea is protected”. Actually all of the sea comes under some form of legislation. The North Sea has a complex tapestry of fisheries legislation that, if recent surges in fish numbers are anything to go by, is having a positive effect.

We need to think about broader consequences of small actions – if we ban fishing from one area, is the alternative source of food less or more damaging globally? Does more conservation here mean less conservation over there?  When we create a marine “protected” area are we having more impact on “unprotected” areas?

We are living in the Anthropocean and, in my view, we need to accept that and use our ingenuity to make space for nature alongside humanity, not see exclusion of people from resources or ways of making a living as a good thing.

Dr Magnus Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology at the University of Hull. All comments (critical or not) are welcomed.

Sources Cited

Dunne RP, Polunin NVC, Sand PH, Johnson ML. 2014. The Creation of the Chagos Marine Protected Area : A Fisheries Perspective. In: Johnson M, Sandell J eds. Advances in Marine Biology: Marine Managed Areas and Fisheries. Oxford: Academic Press, 79–127.

Hilborn R. 2014. Introduction to marine managed areas. Advances in Marine Biology: Marine Managed Areas and Fisheries 69:2–13.

Kearney B, Farebrother G. 2014. Inadequate Evaluation and Management of Threats in Australia’s Marine Parks , Including the Great Barrier Reef , Misdirect Marine Conservation. In: Johnson M, Sandell J eds. Advances in Marine Biology: Marine Managed Areas and Fisheries. Oxford: Academic Press, 254-288

Ungfors A, Bell E, Cowing D, Dobson NC, Bublitz R, Sandell J, Johnson ML, Cowing D, Dobson NC, Bublitz R, Sandell J. 2013. Nephrops fisheries in European waters. In: Johnson ML, Johnson MP eds. The Ecology and Biology of Nephrops Norvegicus. London: Elsevier, 248–306.

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4 thoughts on “Taking the P out of Marine Protected Areas?

  1. Please do not tar all inshore fishermen with the same brush, The Scottish Creel fisherman’s Federation, which represents the majority of creel fishermen, who make up 85% of the inshore fleet by vessel numbers and employment, support the creation of MPA’s.

    • The division in the industry over this issue isn’t helpful. I wish there was a solution that everyone could be happy with. After trawlers have been banned from areas, creel fishers will be susceptible to the accusation that, from a carbon cost per tonne of catch view (not including bait), the stats are terrible for pot fishers – on the whole worse, believe it or not, than any other sector including demersal. Mail me and I’ll send you some literature (would be interested in your view).

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