More and more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being created around the world, but do they make a difference? Do they actually help depressed fisheries and their communities recover?
Sometimes yes, often no: it depends on a suite of features. So the question becomes not just how much coastline should we protect, but also how do we do it right.
Early in 2014 an extraordinary study published in Nature compared 87 MPAs from the shallow water coasts of 40 nations and showed us just how hard it is to create an effective MPA.
MPAs fail to be effective for a few reasons. The greatest problem of course is illegal harvesting, but inadequate regulations that allow harvesting also occur in far too many MPAs. And if the MPA is too small or it isn’t isolated, mobile species simply emigrate to quick capture elsewhere.
Five different features critical to the success of an MPA emerged from the study. Their acronym is NEOLI.
The MPA must be No-Take: no harvesting at all can occur. (N)
Protection must be well-enforced. Otherwise illegal harvesting wrecks everything. (E)
It must at least 10 years old. Obviously that isn’t actually old, but this is a young business, and things take time. (O)
It must be large, at least 100 km2. (L)
And it must be isolated – surrounded by sand or deep water. (I)
No-Take, Enforced, Old, Large and Isolated: NEOLI.
The kicker is that an MPA must have 4 or 5 of these features, or it is ineffective, no different than adjacent unprotected fished areas. Of the 87 MPAs assessed, only 4 had all 5 features, and only 5 others had 4. So 90% had three or less.
These 9 sites, though, point the way. They had considerably more fish, larger fish, larger fish biomass, and included top predators like sharks, groupers and jacks.
The good news here is that recovery is possible, that restoring fish communities to levels of biodiversity and biomass perhaps not that different from past historical levels is not just another impossible dream.
Less encouraging is just how difficult reaching the NEOLI standard can be. The four MPAs with full NEOLI status are pictured above. All four are extremely isolated and almost completely uninhabited. They hardly represent our real and over-crowded world.
Still, knowing what is needed we may be able to rehabilitate many currently ineffective MPAs. Perhaps small ones can be made larger and more isolated. Certainly they can be made No-Take, enforcement can be ensured, and they will of course get older.
Other studies point out more that should be obvious. For instance, coastal fishing communities need to be included in the decisions to create No-Take MPAs, for they know where the MPAs should be placed, and enforcement is more successful if it comes from the community. Comanagement is critical to MPA success along inhabited coasts, and it works a lot better than any alternative.
Also, rehabilitation of existing failing MPAs is only part of the solution. Currently there are about 6500 MPAs around the world, which sounds like a lot, but in fact they barely cover 2% of the world’s oceans, far from the 20-30% that is probably necessary.
Of course creating new protected No-Take space is difficult, humans will still fish illegally, bottom trawlers still unfortunately exist, and enforcement is always a challenge. But knowing how successful a well designed and truly protected MPA can be makes a huge difference.
We can do this.