Marine Protected Areas aren’t necessarily the answer for ocean conservation

Published on
February 2, 2015

Marine protected areas (MPAs), often regarded as the cornerstone of conservation, just aren’t working in many parts of the world, according to marine ecologist Alasdair Harris.

Speaking at a WWF conference on the power of communities to protect the planet in Washington DC in 2013, he told delegates that a study of marine conservation successes in the western Indian Ocean revealed just one example of an effective MPA.

In an interview published in the Daily Telegraph, Harris showed the interviewer a slide of a MPA in Tanzania where overfishing is rife and dynamite fishing is widespread. “Sadly, lamentably, this is not an isolated incident,” he told the newspaper.

According to Harris, MPAs work very well when five factors are in place: there is no fishing; the area is well enforced; it is well established (it has been in place for more than 10 years); it is bigger than 100 square km (39 square miles); and probably the most important factor, it is isolated from humans. However, he pointed out that 1.3 billion people live on tropical coasts, primarily in developing countries, where many of them rely on the sea for their livelihood.

And this, not surprisingly, influences their attitude to conservation. Said Harris: “If I am a fisherman in the Mozambique Channel, why should I support an area that has been established with no consultation with me, or with my community, and no understanding of my imperative to feed my family?”

Harris is enraged by the lack of communication with the population that is going to be affected when MPAs are set up. He points out that “African fishers aren’t reading papers published in the African Journal of Marine Science, or even papers published in Nature. They can’t read,” he said. “The rulebook needs to be ripped up. It’s about what people need.”

Although Harris is very critical of the conservation establishment, referring to an “ivory tower of data obsessed conservationists,” he is a conservationist himself and has co-founded a charity called Blue Ventures which concentrates on people as much as endangered fish or sea turtles.

Harris and his colleagues believe that MPAs can bring benefits, but at a cost. MPAs work by cordoning off an area of sea, with the managing authority attempting to control what kind, if any, of fishing is carried out in the designated area.

Blue Ventures follows a more pragmatic line, appealing to local people’s self interest and coming up with initiatives that get to the root of the problem, Harris said. He calls this approach, “the community catalyst model.”

Starting with the establishment of an octopus reserve in 2004, Blue Ventures has pioneered a grass roots conservation movement in Madagascar. This now consists of 63 Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs), which together are protecting more than 7770 square km (3000 square miles). This, Harris said, is at least three times more than the MPAs managed by the Madagascan government.

The LMMAs are run by committees of local representatives who decide on everything from punishment of poachers to alternative ways for fishermen to make money.

Although LMMAs are said to have a long history in the South Pacific, Blue Ventures is largely credited with them taking off in the western Indian Ocean. Community-based conservation has spread to east Africa including countries such as Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania.

As a result organizations such as WWF are now said to be favoring the community catalyst model. It is to be hoped that they are. It is far easier to get the desired result by having the local community on board rather than imposing a scheme that may well work in other parts of the world but doesn’t stand a chance with fishermen who haven’t even been consulted about it.

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