Dealing with 'MPA mania'

03 Aug 2016

Spatially delimited MPAs (Marine Protected Areas), however lacking in true science, have recently become a commonly prescribed remedy for all fish stock ails, especially for the conservation of biodiversity.

Their worldwide number has been fast increasing in recent years. Powerful lobbies of all sorts of conservationists/environmentalists have brought about such extreme actions as the enormous MPA - twice the size of Texas - in the central Pacific established recently by US President Barack Obama. Now it has come to closing a quarter of the Seychelles' exclusive economic zone, an island nation off Africa's east coast. All this with little consideration for the small-scale fishermen, whose way of life and livelihood depends on inshore/coastal fishing.

And there's more on the waiting list of the MPA apostles, as several environmental organisations have set a goal of making 30% of the world's oceans into no-take marine protected areas by 2030.

Different approach
But Ray Hilborn, a no-nonsense marine biologist and fisheries scientist, who's a Professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is of an opinion that saving biodiversity in the world's oceans requires an approach quite different from prohibiting fishing in MPAs. In a recent article published in Nature, he questions the effectiveness of this increasingly implemented strategy.

Professor Hilborn, who specialises in conservation, fisheries resource assessment and management, including risk analysis, advises several international fisheries commissions and agencies. He has written over 200 scientific papers and several books.

Professor Hilborn thinks that there are better means to conserve biodiversity than MPAs:

"If the problem is overfishing or bycatch, then fisheries management is much more effective than establishing MPAs because you regulate the catch over the entire economic zone," he said. "I don't see how anyone can defend MPAs as a better method than fisheries management, except in places where you just can't do management."

In his opinion, wherever there are functioning fisheries management systems, both conservationists and the industry should cooperate on large-scale protection of marine biodiversity and sensitive marine habitats. He argues that working with the fishing industry on the choice of appropriate gear types, and on species and season selective fishing would be more effective than establishing new MPAs.

Professor Hilborn points to Alaska, where its shelf is covered by species-specific catch restrictions, and over half of it is gear regulated.

"This is much more protection than could be offered by turning 30% of the region into MPAs", he wrote. According to him, MPA promoters have no specific objectives, and what's worse ignore affected communities, and are oblivious to the larger-scale effects.

"Closing one area to fishing will just shift the pressure to a different area,” he said, “or cause people to seek other, more environmentally harmful sources of food. The focus needs to shift. We can better protect biodiversity, and still provide food, by looking to fisheries management as the first defence."

Best approach
The question remains, what is the best approach to fisheries management? Professor Hilborn is calling it ‘scientific management’, his position being that data shows that it is scientific management that saves fisheries, and that where the right controls are in place, stocks recover sustainably. According to Professor Hilborn and Trevor Branch, who have carried out studies on fisheries stocks using survey and abundance data as well as catch data, and that are under some type of management such combined data, is a far more reliable indicator of biomass than extrapolation from catch data alone.

Their approach has painted quite a different picture, giving more reliable information on the state of the exploited resource than that based on catch data only, a method applied by their colleague and disputant Professor Daniel Pauly. This difference in opinion has its expression also in the argument between environmentalists promoting shutting down fishing as their main management methodology, and Professor Hilborn and other scientists, who strongly believe that effective fisheries management based on scientific findings can restore impoverished fish populations and ensure their sustainability.

Scientific research
Well, I understand that what Professor Hilborn has in mind is that any management steps taken should be based on data and information produced by scientific research. This not only discounts such means as MPAs, but also takes with a pinch of salt the so called ‘precautionary approach’ that, with some managers, is happily applied instead of doing ship-borne studies which are needed to base the management steps on facts.

Unfortunately, some conservationist lobbies, such as Greenpeace, don't feel well with science, and attack Professor Hilborn's financial support sources, rather than his science. Well, accepting the fact that his studies were partly financed by fishing industry sources, his disputants should dispute his science, which evidently they're unable to.

But, if MPAs is not the right methodology to be universally applied, what's the right way to manage fisheries, especially where there's no adequate or statistically reliable data on catches, and information on the status of the stock? The way to go, in my opinion, is to hang up the quantitative method to give way to qualitative considerations. For example, closing certain areas to defined types of fishing gear and activities, especially where and when fish accumulate during their pre-spawning and spawning spells, and where their juveniles feed and grow, makes a lot of sense. Where there are not enough figures to play with, intelligent appraisal must take over.

The little problem is that such an approach requires ship-borne studies. It needs adequate funding for sea-time and extra remuneration for scientists, who would take a break from statistical and mathematical models fed by mainly catch data, and adopt a wider, ecological approach. Their ship-borne research should enable them to take account of all known factors that influence the status, location and migratory movements of various fish species populations to create a scientific base for management. Steps resulting from such consideration should be undertaken, even with inadequate quantitative data. They would be based on at-sea observations, logic, intelligence and common sense of fishery scientists sailing onboard research or regular fishing vessels.