Recent study shows more sharks live outside European MPAs than inside – why?

A recent paper in Science revealed a peculiar, counterintuitive outcome in marine protected areas (MPAs) around Europe—researchers found more sharks and rays (a good indicator of biodiversity) outside of MPAs than in them. What is going on here—is fishing happening inside MPAs? Are large MPAs ineffective? The answer to both of these questions is ‘yes’ and this paper does a good job demonstrating why.  

What did the paper do?

Researchers used satellite tracking data aboard fishing boats to compare the footprint of trawlers in European waters to MPA coverage around Europe. Researchers counted 727 MPAs covering about 29% of European territorial waters. It is important to note, though, that the researcher’s definition of ‘MPA’ followed the IUCN guidelines for protected areas which include everything from strict no-take areas to limited natural resource extraction. By the IUCN definition (and this paper’s), fishing is allowed in many of the MPAs examined in the paper (indeed, the paper recorded fishing in over half of the MPAs studied).

Researchers also counted the number of sharks and rays inside versus outside MPA boundaries and found healthier populations outside of MPAs, suggesting that MPAs don’t do a good job protecting biodiversity (or at least highly migratory species that swim long distances, like sharks and rays).

Are no-take MPAs with perfect enforcement the answer?

In the paper, researchers lament “paper parks” a colloquial term for protected areas without enforcement. These MPAs are protection in name only, lacking resources to enforce regulation or used as lip service for ‘environmental’ politicians who create MPAs with the stroke of a pen to gain favor. The researchers call for stronger protections and enforcement in MPAs to conserve biodiversity.

However, missing from the conversation is a fishery management approach to biodiversity conservation. Enforcing no-take swaths of ocean is expensive and difficult. Instead, applying resources to improving fishery management (e.g. gear-restrictions, total allowable catch, other management tools) could be a much more effective way to conserve biodiversity.

The global mystique of MPAs as the solution to every ocean problem is misguided; this paper offers further evidence.

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW. He thinks a lot about how environmental perception influences environmental policies.

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