The science of sustainable seafood, explained

John Tanzer


John Tanzer is the Director of the Global Marine Program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International. We spoke to him on November 22, 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).

In my career I’ve worked in both terrestrial and marine resource management and conservation. I think most notably I first came across MPAs or spatial protection in a hands on way when I was chairman of the Queensland Fisheries Management Authority, so I was working directly in fisheries and trying to manage fisheries such as the scallop fishery, inshore gill nets, crabs and tropical rock lobster, as well as reef-line or trawl fisheries. It’s a huge area, Queensland and up into the Torres Straight, and then we manage it jointly with the Commonwealth into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Around there it was gillnet, and it’s gillnet on the East Coast as well.

So we had there a situation of trying to reign in the amount of effort that was deployed. Of course a lot of the area that the Queensland Fishery Management Authority was responsible for overlapped with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park World Heritage Area. So that was a challenge trying to manage those fisheries where up until – and I guess this is true of many fisheries in the US as well and many other places – the late 80’s, for us anyhow, fishing licenses were relatively easy to get hold of. It was seen as a form of economic development – fishing was seen like farming. We had and still have considerable land clearing occurring in Queensland as they open up the country, and up until then it was a similar sort of approach to fishing. It was seen to be a way of starting small businesses, getting people involved in work, creating wealth and so forth. The problem with that was there was little attention paid to sustainability. Then I came in as chairman basically with a new set of legislation – this was the mid 1990’s – with a legislation that was based much more on ecological sustainability. So the first issue we had was trying to rebuild stocks. As part of that, we relied on trying to protect the key spawning areas and protect the key habitat areas that help sustain those fisheries. At the same time, we tried to get effort out using whatever method was politically feasible at the time.

That would be my introduction to MPAs. I should say after I finished my stint there I moved on as executive director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, so I was in charge of management of a multiple use MPA.

Probably useful to just clarify, certainly I’m from the multiple-use side of things in that I see spatial closures as part of a mosaic of management, not a separate element to fisheries or to ocean management, and I don’t get too caught up in definitions of MPAs. I’m happy for others to spend their time doing that. What I’m interested in is using them as an effective tool, or using spatial closures as an effective tool for sustainability. So that’s where I come from and I think that’s pretty well known, and of course the great barrier marine park is a multiple use area of 350,000 square kilometers that is basically there to conserve the great barrier reef ecosystem, but it encapsulates a whole range of uses, economic uses that take place in that area.

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

When you’re trying to manage large areas, large areas of the ocean, I think having a mosaic of highly protected areas as part of that is essential and I’ll just say why:

I was always mindful when I was in fisheries management of the lack of good information we had, the lack of good data. There was often a lot of information in fishermen’s knowledge and their understanding, but in terms of solid data we’re often operating in fairly data poor situations – and this was in a developed country where there was and is a lot of data and monitoring systems – but even so I felt like we should have been saying a lot more to ministers and decision makers. “Look we don’t know,” can we just say, “this is our best guess?” But human beings, being what we are, tend to like to be seen much more on top of our subject.

The reason I say that is because I find the use of spatial closures as a good insurance policy when you’re trying to manage a relatively large areas with less than perfect understanding. Understanding is better, and the area I’m talking about is so much better understood oceanographically and from a fisheries and coral reef perspective than most places in the world. But even so, there is uncertainty, and putting in place a network of well-designed and well-managed highly protected areas provides a very good foundation for sustainability going forward.

When you say network do you mean complimentary pieces that close and open seasonally, or have different sizes, or focus on different species?

It could be that, it could be that depending on the level of unknown and the threat you are trying to deal with. So its as I said, I really don’t quite get being on one end of the spectrum or the other, so I don’t think its all about large no take areas nor is it all about not having any of those, I think it depends very much on the circumstances you’re trying to manage.

In my experience, having worked in or seen many places around the world, we’re often trying to manage with much less than perfect knowledge of course, and so if you want to manage a large area for the future then having a large network of highly protected areas in place is important. By network, I essentially mean ecologically coherent areas that compliment each other, connect each other, reinforce each other, representative of the habitat types, and replicate sufficiently the habitat types.

So for me, the design of a network of MPAs, or a network of protected areas, and the less protected areas as well, is very important. I think it’s always political in the end, because you’re dealing with people and their access and so froth. But to the extent that it is possible we should base it on strong science that is around ecological cohesiveness.

How do you feel about large ocean MPAs?

To my mind we really need to focus on MPAs and spatial closures as tools and not as outcomes in their own right, and I think that we too much celebrate large declarations. Given the state of the oceans and the pressure that we have, I’m not going to be critical of protection where it occurs, but my strong belief is that we really need to be focusing these tools in places where the threats are greatest and where the need for sustaining ocean uses is highest. When we are putting in networks of MPAs in coastal areas, close to populations, close to where the pressure threats particularly unsustainable fishing, are greatest, and the size of the MPA doesn’t matter that much, then I think we’re getting closer to the mark.

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

I think targets are always useful things to have, and the organization that I’m working with, WWF, supports the use of targets. But let me just say again, while targets provide assistance with a precautionary approach in the face of mounting pressures on oceans and the inadequate knowledge we have about how the ocean ecosystem works, particularly at scale. I think the more important factor is the design and the management of those closures. That’s what we really need to focus on much more. And by management I don’t just mean compliance, I also mean monitoring and adjustment of boundaries over time for a lot of that data that comes forward and it interpretation.

When is it most appropriate to use a no-take zone (NTZ) MPA?

Particularly with demersal species. I have a high bias towards experience in coral reef and developing world context, so I think that when you’re looking at a protection of spawning areas or recruitment areas that contain critical habitat that may be under threat in one form or another, NTZs are appropriate.

In my experience, one of the mistakes, or the difficulties we’ve gotten ourselves into in relation to this is that we focus on MPAs as a tool for biodiversity and that’s part of what I think has caused a polarized debate. But we need to look at design and management of MPAs as tools for supporting sustainable use, particularly in the developing world where options are limited, ocean governance isn’t where we’d like it to be, and fisheries data is poor. I think then protecting the critical habitat and those spawning areas is essential.

How have fishermen and fishing industry responded to MPAs in your experience?

Not well, overall. But it deserves a deeper dive than that.

When we were doing the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef and we moved the area of no-take from around 3% to nearly 33%. Industry organization representatives, who weren’t necessarily fishermen, but in some cases were of course, saw it as a battle on behalf of their members because they saw it as a reduction in access.

However many fishermen who I knew and could talk to off the record were aware that things were going backward in the fishery and would say, “While I’m not going to come out and support this publicly because of the position of my organization, somebody has to do something about the overfishing situation and the impact on habitat.” There was an intuitive belief that these actions – as long as they were inclusively designed and managed – could help fishermen. If they were going to be really excluded to the point that it affected their income and feasibility, then they wanted to get out with dignity.

MPAs clearly work better in some fisheries versus others. In the Australian reef line fishery, those that were staying in the fishery were very keen that the no take areas included spawning areas and critical habitat for those species they were targeting. So the response can be mixed from fishermen.

I worry that sometimes we’re getting so polarized on these subjects. I’d like to see some way we can come together much better around the use of MPAs or spatial closures to provide benefits for people. I think fishermen understand that – they just don’t want to be excluded without being listened to, and they don’t want to be excluded from areas unnecessarily and in a way that there’s no recognition of what they’re losing either financially or personally.

With this in mind, good MPA creation takes time and not everyone will be happy. It is a shame that some felt they lost a battle at the end.

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

No, I think just to emphasize the importance of monitoring these areas once they are set up, to be able to show how they are working, and working means in terms of different criteria that they may be set up for. Its very important that we have clear objectives as to why we are setting these up and be very open and honest and transparent about that, and then monitor their effectiveness, and adjust the boundaries if need be, in light of that information. Design is something that is pushed aside often in the political debate so its all about, “lets just get declarations made, lets just get more areas under these different categories,” which I understand but I think it’s a bit like fisheries management – If you don’t plan it well and you don’t implement it, it won’t work if you don’t use best available science. Similarly with MPAs, plan them well, manage them well, and it will provide benefits, including for fisheries.

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