The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Andrew Rosenberg

Andrew Rosenberg is the Director at the Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, and formerly Regional Director for Northeast of National Marine Fisheries Service. We spoke to him on November 2, 2016 about marine protected areas. The transcript of our conversation is below; you can also listen to the full interview at the bottom of the page.

Please tell us about your background involving Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

My background is in fisheries and population dynamics, as a scientist but also as a policy maker. I’m trained in oceanography, biology, worked in population dynamics, worked as a scientist and faculty member at the Imperial College of science and technology, working on international fisheries issues. Then I went back to the US to work for NOAA, first as a scientist, then was appointed regional administrator in the northeast.

I implemented large closed areas in the northeast, on the Georges Bank, Gulf of Maine, Southern New England. I then was deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service for a couple of years. I was involved in a lot of discussions around the use of closed areas, as well as limited access, individual quotas, and a whole range of issues.

Subsequently I moved to University of New Hampshire, I continued to work as a scientist but also on science policy interface and have continued that as chief scientist at Conservation International, in government advisory commissions, and sometimes in consulting work.

So I’ve moved around a fair bit in my present job at Union of Concerned Scientists. The organization doesn’t work on ocean issues but I continue to do ocean science and policy work.

In your experience, under what circumstances are MPAs most effective and least effective?

This is both from my research, the research of others and from application – MPAs are most effective when they are large, (meaning they cover a significant fraction of the stock), when there are clear rules for exploitation in and outside the protected area, and that there are very specific stock goals in mind, in other words there are specific species or stocks that you’re trying to reduce fishing pressure on.

In New England that worked well, none of the areas would be called “fully protected.” From my perspective, I don’t object to fully protected areas, on the other hand they’re likely to be very small, at least in my opinion. In most cases, that is simply because implementing a management policy is always a negotiation.

The recent declaration in the Antarctic is a different matter, a little bit of an outlier to that statement. But if you’re doing something in US waters, or somewhere subject to many fisheries, and you’re talking about a fully protected area, then you’re talking about more participants that will potentially be displaced. On the other hand, for the New England closed areas targeted specifically at groundfish and scallops, leaving alone the pelagic fisheries, lobster fisheries, and for the most part recreational fisheries, it was possible to close large areas that actually had a significant impact on exploitation rates. So protected areas are useful for habitat protection, and that’s important, but as a fishery management tool you need to be able to control exploitation rates, or in many cases reduce exploitation rates for overexploited stocks. To that end you at least need to have fairly large or extensive protected areas.

What is an example of an MPA that you think was particularly ineffective, specifically not achieving its goals?

I think some of the large protected areas around islands that are effectively paper parks are an obvious example. But more to the point, a very small supposedly targeted protected area, whether it is fully protected or not, which really doesn’t encompass enough of the stock or doesn’t have management measures outside of that area, such that you can’t really control harvest at all, in an example of an ineffective MPA.

Another example would be in New England. There were initially some closed areas that had various gear restrictions and were closed on a seasonal basis. Well, that really wasn’t useful because it was so easy to make up the harvest outside the closure. So those seasonal closures, unless they are extremely large or you know the season extremely well and you can’t make up the fishing mortality outside of that seasonal closure area, are quite ineffective. Some of those have been in New England, some in the Gulf, I think there has been some on the West Coast too.

In other areas you have little dots that are protected – that’s nice – but unless they have the enforcement it really doesn’t help. I worked on some areas in the Caribbean and in Brazil that really weren’t adequately enforced and were relatively small in the first place, and there was no local buy-in to help with enforcement, so they were very ineffective.

There’s lots of ways to make protected areas ineffective: you just name them and you don’t enforce them, they’re too small or for limited duration, they are for limited gear types so they don’t impact overall exploitation. Sometimes they can totally miss the right spot for the bulk of the stock, so if you look at New England closures for example, they were effective for haddock but not for cod, that was known going in, but again you’re negotiating all of these things in a public setting, at least in US fisheries.

The 30% no-take proposal some environmentalists have been proposing lately – how do you feel about something like that? Would it be a useful measure?

Well actually I don’t object to it in principal. I know that many fisheries people do.

I don’t object to it in principal for a couple of reasons. I think that there’s a lot of ocean out there that people can work in, and I think we ultimately will move towards greater protection, preferably in managed zones. The difficulty is that the argument usually goes, “well you don’t need to do this if you manage well, but unfortunately we aren’t managing well, so we should manage better, and you wont need to do this…”

And so the good thing about a protected area, from my perspective as a former front line manager, is if you can draw lines and enforce them its fairly simple in terms of monitoring. The bad thing though is that in most cases, people aren’t going to enforce most fisheries regulations anyway. So you may not need to do large protected areas, high seas or anywhere else if you have very strong management regimes in place and can be adequately enforced, and you have the resources to maintain that management system. But in many places you don’t, you don’t have the resources to maintain, you’re not going to enforce effectively, you need the simplest measure possible that actually can be monitored. It’s massively inefficient, I understand that, but sometimes you have to go for something that’s inefficient and plausible versus very efficient because you know the latter is never actually going to be managed properly.

Right now that means its tuna fisheries that are mostly going to be subject to this, although there is a few other fisheries in these areas certainly. Some tuna fisheries are well managed others are not. Tuna has done fairly well in some areas in terms of international agreements – great. It’s not necessarily clear to me in those cases of tuna management that MPAs are the answer, but for other similar stocks, maybe they would be.

So I think it’s a little difficult when people are speaking in great generalities, whether its 30% or whatever the percentage is for a large high seas closed area. It must be clear that there is a purpose, that there is going to actually be enforcement, so somebody is going to take responsibility for it, and you’re actually going to monitor what happens. But that’s true of any management measure. There’s no magic about any of this, fisheries management isn’t all that magical, its not all that hard to conceive what needs to be done, its just hard to do it.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my own research and other observations is that one of the most effective ways to manage fisheries is by a combination of methods. So you have some protected areas and you have some catch controls if you can handle those and gear controls if you can manage those and so on. Any one method tends to be somewhat ineffective, but a combination of methods tends to be much more robust. There is no point in declaring a management measure that you know cannot be implemented. That’s been the history of fisheries over and over and over again, I have to say: declaring a catch quota that you can’t require people to adhere to, declaring a protected area that people are still going to fish in, or declaring a gear rule that nobody can enforce, or effort limitations and so on – this stuff is very, very difficult to implement because the resources to implement are always relatively small, and the measures are always relatively complicated.

What do you think about the Papahanaumokuakea marine sanctuary and the use of an executive order to get that passed? Should it have been more consultative?

In principle I think consultation is great, but what I’ve noticed from observation is that on fisheries in particular and also in other areas, people will say you can consult with us but we’re not going to agree to anything…Ok that’s helpful (laughter). “But you should consult with us, how dare you do something without consulting with us! No restrictions are acceptable!” Well, that’s not very useful.

In that particular case there are a couple of things to observe about Papahanaumokuakea. Which declaration are we talking about, the most recent one, or the one from President Bush? Either time?

I guess just the ability for the president to do that in general.

I’ve always supported the ability to do that and of course there is a new area off the coast of New England for the New England seamounts, because there are areas that its fine to say, “well this should be done by congressional action” (that we are never going to take), or “by a negotiation” (that we never have any intention of engaging in), or “this should be done by the fishery management council” (which will never take this up and have a serious discussion). But I actually think that in certain cases using presidential authority makes sense to me. In this particular case I have a couple of other observations. One of them is that I’ve never seen an action like this that I had any direct knowledge of with more people taking credit for it than this one. (laughter). I can list at least a dozen people who have told me categorically that they were responsible for getting president Bush to make the original declaration. In all cases I knew that didn’t happen to really be the case, because I was at NOAA at the time, and various people at NOAA were working on it, and various people in the Interior, and in the White House were talking about it for a long time before it ever happened. Praise and glory for the non-participants.

So there was substantial interest and sentiment behind creating that large protected area. Secondly it’s a very small number of people in industry who ever worked in that area and if you looked at the number of companies, it is even smaller. And if you looked at the recent new England seamount declaration, a very small number of people and really just one guy who was interested in it, wanted to preserve the option, which is really what is happening in Hawaii as well.

So the best time to actually establish a protected area is not after people have figured out they want to heavily exploit the area, or that you have a lot of participants in the area. I’m sorry I just don’t believe that in that area it was the case that there were a lot of participants in that fishery. So yes, sometimes people don’t get to do things they might want to do at some point in the future. If that wasn’t true then of course you wouldn’t need any regulations, anybody could do whatever they wanted. Regulations are designed to tell people when they have to do things differently, not exactly whatever they want to do at any time. So I don’t object to it I think it was a sensible move, it clearly is an important area, it didn’t displace either very many, or any major fisheries where you’re going to move that effort outside the area and so on, and at some point I think it is justifiable to make it clear that if the public process isn’t going to work, or a consultative process isn’t going to work, there are other alternatives.

Without that, what’s the incentive for anybody to come to agreement?

Now its not that the debate was stifled, everybody was arguing that, “you should have allowed it into a process….that we were refusing to start.” (laughter). I’ve been sued for not using data that people refused to give to me – by the people that refused to give it to me! So there are all kinds of rhetorical stuff going on here, but in terms of a benefit for the nation, I think it was a good move.

Is there anything else we particularly should focus on in our MPA coverage?

First of all, I think very quickly these debates become dichotomized inappropriately. So I think MPAs are incredibly useful, I think large MPAs can be incredibly useful, I don’t think that they are the only means to an end, but for the international discussion you also have to think about what’s being achieved under other approaches. In some cases you have good international agreements that actually are being implemented and are meeting their objectives. In other cases, despite what the organization might say of how wonderful we are and how hard we’re working on it, the results are terrible.

So go back to the New England example, everybody was saying, “OK, you should leave it the fishery management council. Closing areas is a drastic step”. But at that point you had had more than 15 years of history, of actually not taking action to address an overfishing problem. So sometimes taking a measure like an MPA or some other strong action is because you’ve already observed another management process breaking down.

Secondly, I do think that MPAs have in interesting role with regard to climate change, or any changing environmental condition. That is, MPAs can be a really important hedge against habitat loss, loss of ecosystem structure and function, and so on, which should provide some resilience to climate change. On the other hand you declare a protected area and often you forget to inform the fish, so they don’t know they’re supposed to stay there as oppose to move with the changing climate. So we’re going to have a really interesting challenge as resources move – high seas, coastal, doesn’t make any difference – with regard to changing environment and I don’t think that anyone is really thinking through, “so can you move this thing if the resources its supposed to protect are shifted north or deeper or wherever thy might shift?” I worry about that a lot. You can say well, “just make the protected area bigger”, but at some point in the limits its probably going to be in the wrong place and climate.

One of the things that is a feature of any management system and fisheries as an example, is once you’ve taken a difficult action it is extremely difficult to change it. It’s even more difficult than to establish it in the first place, and so I worry about that and I think that lots of people should be thinking about what’s going to happen when the resources move.

One last question, how do fishermen respond to MPAs in your experience?

Fishermen are in a business where adaptation is the name of the game. Fishermen are thus remarkably good at trying to problem solve. So no one really wants an area completely closed because it limits your options severely – it is much easier for the fishermen to modify gear than modify the area they are fishing. Thus, most fishermen probably wouldn’t prefer their fishing grounds to be closed. But even so, fishermen find a way to make it work.

Having said that, fishermen are aware when nothing seems to be working, and in the case of my experience with MPAs in New England, it was clear that nothing had worked so far and there was no way to immediately impact the harvest rate, and it was going to take too long. Some people were ok with that, but most understood why there had to be a No Take Zone (NTZ) and a complete closure.

One benefit in the minds of fishermen to an NTZ versus an MPA where some fishing effort is still allowed is that in the latter example, some fishermen are excluded and others are not, and that inequity really bothers fishermen in my experience. With a true NTZ, at least everyone is equally excluded. The downside is that the more gears or groups excluded, then the smaller the area is likely to be, just because of the realities of the negotiating process. So there is a real tradeoff between the size of the closed area and the degree of restriction.

Any final thoughts?

We should get away from describing protected areas as good or bad. The answer is yes, and yes, depending on the circumstances, like many other things. I would prefer the debate to be around that: is this appropriate compared to what the practically available alternatives actually are?

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