Large, Open Ocean MPAs Distract from More Pressing Ocean Issues

Effective conservation requires thoughtful decision-making to successfully navigate complex issues involving food, livelihood, and preservation. Fishery management is conservation in practice as it tries to ensure that fish for food and enjoyment persist indefinitely. However, the tools chosen for the job have implications for the environment and the people using it. There are limited resources to devote to a myriad of issues, and most decisions have winners and losers. With any conservation objective, each potential management tool should be critically evaluated to consider externalities and alternatives. No-take MPAs that restrict all fishing can be the right tool for conservation and management, but not always.

Recently, many global conservation leaders have called for a dramatic increase in the amount of no-take MPA coverage worldwide, mainly through large, open-ocean marine protected areas (LOOMPAs). Touting these immense MPAs as the pinnacle of ocean protection is popular right now, but fails to acknowledge the social and biological shortcomings of LOOMPAs and, crucially, is a poor use of political capital. Understanding and accounting for the critiques of LOOMPAs will make fisheries and ocean conservation better.

Prudent, coastal MPAs are good

MPAs function by restricting fishing in an area of the ocean. If well enforced, they are an effective management tool for specific coastal habitats, like coral reefs, which need healthy fish populations to function properly. Coral reefs are also extremely delicate; preventing harmful fishing practices can greatly benefit the ecosystem. Fortunately, commercial fishing is less reliant on coral reefs than other ocean habitats.

MPAs that protect seagrass meadows and kelp forests along the coast can also work to mitigate climate change and ocean acidification as seagrasses and kelp are the oceans’ greatest carbon sinks, sequestering more carbon per acre than terrestrial forests. Proper protection would restrict damaging fishing gear to keep the underwater forests and meadows intact.

Large, Open Ocean MPAs are contentious, biologically.

Large, open ocean MPAs (LOOMPAs) are designed to protect huge swaths of open ocean, but are a poor choice for efficiently and effectively managing fisheries. The idea is that by restricting fishing in such a large area, highly migratory fish that travel across the open ocean (like tuna) will have better opportunities to grow and reproduce. However, highly migratory fish are just that—highly migratory. Tuna populations move thousands of miles; in and out of LOOMPAs, EEZs, and the high seas. From a fishery management perspective, LOOMPAs are unnecessary: already, most tuna and billfish stocks are sustainably managed by international organizations called regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) and a large majority of tuna and billfish stocks are already biologically sustainable.

Large, Open Ocean MPAs are not holistic.

Because of their size and scale, LOOMPAs are often portrayed as idealized ocean conservation, but they do not protect the ocean from its greatest threats: carbon dioxide emissions and pollution. Climate change caused by excess CO2 in the atmosphere is dramatically raising the temperature of the ocean. Warm water is, and will continue to bleach corals, degrade habitats, and force species to new home ranges. More intense storms will cause damage to coastal environments and the people and wildlife that live there. Excess CO2 in the atmosphere also dissolves in the ocean and chemically reacts with seawater to generate carbonic acid, causing ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide threats to the ocean are here now and will continue to cause damage.

Excess carbon is the greatest long-term threat to ocean health, but pollution* is the greatest short-term threat: fertilizer runoff, sediment runoff, raw sewage, and other toxic wastes have potential to quickly destroy coastal habitats when dumped into the ocean. Climate change, ocean acidification, and land-based pollutants are the most pressing threats to biodiversity in the ocean—LOOMPAs do nothing to alleviate those problems. Proponents of LOOMPAs argue that MPAs hedge against climate change by increasing resiliency. However, a holistic approach, and indeed a scientific approach, to ocean conservation affirms that climate change mitigation (prevention) is far more important than adaptation & resilience. MPAs may actually contribute to climate change and ocean acidification by restricting the amount of low-carbon protein available to eat. Land-based protein is much worse for the planet than seafood.

Who Wins with Large, Open Ocean MPAs?

Because of their size and scale, LOOMPAs garner lots of splashy headlines and notoriety for the conservation organizations and politicians who implement them.

The process for proposing, designing, and implementing LOOMPAs is long and difficult**. Time, money, and other resources working to implement LOOMPAs would be best spent concentrating MPAs in areas that will do the most good or on more pressing ocean conservation issues, like climate change and ocean acidification. Further, political capital for conservation is precious; spending it on LOOMPAs is extremely inefficient. Not only do LOOMPAs fail to address the ocean’s biggest problems, they bail out politicians by giving them something to point to as progress. For example, George W. Bush and his presidency was terrible for the planet, but he created the largest MPA in the world (at the time). His environmental legacy is often overshadowed by other inadequacies, but is mostly intact. His successor, Barack Obama, expanded the MPA to the outer limits of the EEZ, making it as large as possible. For this, Obama is portrayed as The Ocean President and environmental hero, despite the fact that the fisheries affected by his expansion were already biologically sustainable and other, more impactful items on his environmental agenda, like the Clean Power Plan, failed spectacularly. Obama was hampered by corruption and bias in government, but he could have spent his political capital ensuring success for the Clean Power Plan, rather than forging a counterfeit environmental legacy.

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Social Implications of MPAs

Finally, MPAs are more than scientifically controversial, they are rife with social justice implications. First, MPAs are a Western idea. National parks and reserves have a long history of colonial and settler implementation. Local and indigenous management reliant on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is often seen as inferior to outside management from those with higher capacity and power. Many international NGOs pushing for more and larger MPAs approach this aspect of implementation inclusively and delicately, but many do not. Spending energy and resources working on MPAs in foreign, developing countries can be a bit problematic, not just in a colonial sense, but also because it places blame on these countries for the lesser state of their fisheries when the overarching problems of excess carbon emissions and global poverty can be traced back to the developed world. Carbon mitigation, poverty alleviation, and pollution solutions should be a part of every conservation organization’s ethos. The best way to improve fisheries abroad is to build management capacity. Capacity building empowers people to manage resources themselves rather than relying on outsiders/NGOs that cause dependency and resentment.

In Sum:

There are limited resources to address an overwhelming plate of conservation challenges. It is irresponsible and genuinely consequential to continue pushing LOOMPAs when fish, and all ocean ecosystems, will see a greater impact from strategic investment in curtailing carbon, reducing land-based sources of pollution, and building capacity for effective and sustainable fisheries management.

* A quick note on plastic pollution: plastic in the ocean is ugly, gross, and bad… BUT it has a relatively small impact on biodiversity. Yes, some seabirds, whales, and turtles are killed by plastic pollution, but the numbers killed by plastic pale in comparison to other anthropogenic killers in the ocean like ship strikes, oil spills, and runoff. Microplastics are ingested by fish, and can bioaccumulate in predators higher in the food chain, however there is no evidence eating these fish negatively affects human health. A study examining microplastics in oysters found it would take eating over 50 lbs of oyster meat (not the shell) per year to reach the maximum dietary allowance of plastic ingestion as suggested by the EU. Research on the effects of plastic in the ocean are relatively young, but early evidence indicates that it is not nearly as large a threat compared to other kinds of pollution or carbon threats.

** The process for proposing, designing, and implementing MPAs is supposed to be long and difficult to ensure an MPA is the best tool for the conservation goal, but sometimes scientific evaluation is expedited as politicians and advocates chase notoriety. For example, the fisheries department in Seychelles was not consulted before the President declared the largest MPA in Seychelles history that directly effects fishers and their families. Without rigorous biological and social evaluation, MPAs are ‘protection’ in name only.

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