The science of sustainable seafood, explained

How do Fishermen Respond to Marine Protected Areas?

Fishermen and MPAs don’t seem to mesh well. What fisherman would prefer to have their fishing area restricted? Most of the media coverage regarding fishermen and MPAs follows this script.

However, while fishermen may oppose management obstacles, many may be in favor of MPAs and other conservation measures when their fish stocks are threatened or have become damaged.

We spoke to Andrew Rosenberg and John Tanzer about this topic:


Andrew Rosenberg:

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 year-round area closures for commercial groundfishing.

One benefit in the minds of fishermen to an NTZ (No Take Zone) 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 many 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.

John Tanzer:

Overall not well. Representatives of fishing industry were very much opposed to marine protected areas and viewed it as a point of political battle, in my experience.

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 intuitively 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.


Andrew Rosenberg is the Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and was formerly Regional Director for Northeast of National Marine Fisheries Service

John Tanzer is the Director of the Global Marine Program at WWF International. He can be found @JohnTanzer_WFF

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