Marine Protected Areas: an Answer to Fishy Management?
By Andrew Shifren
When European explorers set foot in the New World, a consistent theme in their journals was the bounty of fish. Regardless of nationality, the incredible abundance of sea life, so starkly different from their own overfished coasts, shocked them. In a reconnaissance of the Chesapeake tributaries with John Smith, an explorer wrote about “abundance of fish lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to capture them with a frying pan.” An English visitor to the Potomac River recorded “Sturgeon and shad are in such prodigious numbers that in one day within the space of two miles only, some gentlemen in canoes caught above six hundred of the former with hooks […] and of the latter above five thousand have been caught at one single haul of the seine.” Catching fish in such abundance with simple nets and hooks sounds almost absurd, but there are enough accounts like these that it is difficult to doubt their veracity.
Fish make up a significant percentage of humanity’s global protein consumption in modern times. Global per capita fish consumption in the 1960s was 9.9 kg. Four decades later, in 2005, global per capita consumption jumped to 16.4 kg. Today in some nations with large populations living on the coast, like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, fish make up more than 50% of animal protein in the average diet.
Technological advancements engendered this boom in fish consumption. In relatively recent times, the transition from sailboats to steam and then combustion engines meant ships could travel increasingly larger distances to catch fish. The advent of refrigeration meant ships could stay at sea longer to reach more remote fishing areas. The 1950s heralded a new age in fishing. Between synthetic fiber nets, longline fishing (which involves stringing hundreds of hooks on fishing lines miles long) and radars to track fish, the fishing industry boomed.
If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you give a man radar, synthetic nets, and refrigeration, he may destroy an entire fishery. George’s Bank is an example of the potentially destructive power of modern fishing. An attached graph depicts the kinds of enormous catches produced when modern fishing methods met a productive fishery like the one that stretched from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. But in the late 1980s, and again in 1992, the amount of cod caught in the area dropped precipitously. Without a critical mass of fish, the fishery collapsed and to this day has not recovered, despite stringent fishing restrictions. National Marine Fisheries Service scientists estimated that cod were spawning at 3-4% of historical levels. It seems that the damage done to the George’s Bank cod fishery may be irreparable.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) may be the solution to protect fisheries and biodiversity while simultaneously ensuring that fish maintain their position as a crucial source of food for all. Although MPAs are managed very differently throughout the world, the underlying premise behind them is essentially the same. A nation designates an area of ocean that is to be governed by a more stringent set of rules. Fishing may be heavily regulated or banned altogether in the MPA. Without disturbances like trawling nets and oilrigs, this area of ocean becomes healthy and fecund, producing more fish that grow older and larger. Unlike humans, the older a female fish grows, the more eggs she can produce. For example, a single eight-year old female red snapper produces as many eggs as 212 five-year old fish.
It is this exponential growth in fish spawning that makes MPAs politically and morally feasible. Because fish do not care much for administrative boundaries, the fish that stray out of the MPA are fair game for fishermen. Presumably after a few years, the MPA is home to so many large fish that fishermen actually find their catches increasing from just the spillover.
There are a few significant barriers to the success of an MPA. The first and most obvious is enforcement. Colombia’s Seaflower MPA, covers 65,000 kilometers squared, roughly the size of Ireland. Even the wealthiest of nations have trouble policing an area of that size in the ocean. Another problem is community education and engagement. In many coastal areas, people have been fishing for generations and are skeptical of government interference. Convincing people that a closure, which may decrease their catch in the short term, will benefit them in the long term, is a difficult task. But without their support, an MPA is doomed to fail.
There is also the difficulty of political will. The Republic of Kiribati received global accolades when it created the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) in 2006. About the size of California, this 410,000 square kilometer MPA became the largest in the world. The president of Kiribati won multiple prestigious awards for creating the MPA. With increasing scrutiny, however, people realized that the wording of the laws only banned fishing in 3% of the MPA. In 2012, an unsustainable 50,000 tons of tuna were caught inside the reserve.
Throughout history, as fishing technology improved, the amount of fish caught increased. But today that is no longer the case. Even as fishing efforts and the global population increase, total catches are falling. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concludes that almost 60% of fish stocks are being overexploited. The world needs a new fishing paradigm. MPAs cover only about 4% of the world’s oceans today. But a recent study published in the journal, Conservation Letters, suggests that 30% of oceans must be protected in order to achieve the UN’s goals of protecting biodiversity while satisfying stakeholders.
MPAs are relatively new and not well understood. How large an MPA must be to be effective or which species benefit the most is not clear. And as in the case of PIPA, there is potential for mismanagement. But any future where the world hosts healthy seas must protect them with MPAs. With luck, maybe one day fish will be so bounteous again that we will be able to catch them with frying pans.