Archive for December, 2014

The MPA Solution

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

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.

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful MPAs that are pictured below. (nature.com)

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful successful MPAs that are pictured below (nature.com)

– 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 be 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.

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

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.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

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.

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

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.

The New Seawall of China

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

By now probably everyone who lives near a coast knows that coastal wetlands can protect us from some of the devastating impact of the wave surge and flooding associated with this new generation of super-storms – like Katrina, Xythia, Sandy, and Haiyan of the last few years.

Typhoon Hagupit blew across the Philippines in early December 2014. Because Typhoon Haiyan did such immense damage in the Philippines in 2013, everyone was much more prepared for Hagupit (nytimes.com)

Typhoon Hagupit blew across the Philippines in early December 2014. Because Typhoon Haiyan did such immense damage in 2013, everyone was much more prepared for Hagupit (nytimes.com)

Three kinds of responses to the threats of super-storms seem to exist. One is to retreat from the edge of the sea, and let the coastal wetlands (or barrier islands) absorb the wave surge and flooding – the wisest response but still the least likely since moving people, let alone communities or cities, can be close to impossible.

A much more common response is to adapt and prepare. Bangladesh is a famous example, for most of the country’s habitable region is the flat coastal delta of the Ganges River and there is no space for the dense coastal population to retreat to. So not only is mangrove reforestation well underway but many farmers are also planting rice that is more tolerant of higher salinity and temperature, others are growing hydroponic floating crops, and many cyclone shelters have been built. The hope is to absorb the wave surge, adapt to the flooding, and keep people alive. Some also propose migration to Canada, a more long-term solution.

The Ganges floodplain of Bangladesh is subsiding as sea level rises, and the only option available is to prepare and adapt (nature.com)

The Ganges floodplain of Bangladesh is subsiding as sea level rises, and the only option available is to prepare and adapt (nature.com)

In fact 50 of the least developed countries, including Bangladesh, now receive assistance in making similar preparations from the Global Environmental Facility’s (GEF’s) Adaptation Program, an apparently independent organization that still somehow retains association with the UN and the World Bank.

The third response is to do nothing. This is certainly the response most of us are most familiar with. Lack of funds, lack of political will or leadership, lack of community action, unfounded optimism, denial that anything serious has happened or might happen – all play their part. But such delusions are diminishing as more and more communities are directly affected by the powerful storms.

And then there’s China.

China has taken a fourth route: it has built and continues to build the longest seawall in the world, about the length of of its other more famous Great Wall.

The wall encloses coastal wetlands, making it possible to replace them with industrial, agricultural and urban development. With each passing decade the rate of wetland loss has increased, and there is no end in sight.

China's seawall extends along much of the mainland coast (red on map in upper right; The Great Wall is in yellow for comparison). The amount of wetland lost has increased in each of the past three decades (red on the graph at the center bottom) and is projected to be greater than ever in the next decade (white on the graph) (nytimes.com)

China’s seawall extends along much of the mainland coast (red on map in upper right; The Great Wall is in yellow for comparison). The amount of wetland lost has increased in each of the past three decades (red on the graph at the center bottom) and is projected to be greater than ever in the next decade (white on the graph) (nytimes.com)

This is astonishing. Wetlands not only provide a protective buffer against the damaging effects of storm surge and flooding. They also are a sink for pollutants and CO2, a nursery for fish of commercial interest, and habitats for a remarkable biodiversity, including large numbers of waterfowl.

China’s reasons for eliminating wetlands are obvious enough. The huge coastal population continues to grow, new coastal land available for development is extremely valuable, the government is obsessed by GDP growth, the conservation ethic is still embryonic, and wetlands have long been considered wasted space.

And it also isn’t as if China lacks some reasonable laws protecting vulnerable wetlands – it just doesn’t enforce them. Economic growth trumps everything. Limiting growth may be the hardest adaptation we need to make on our warming planet.

In any case, against all reason China continues to radically reduced protection for people, property and habitats in its coastal wetlands.

In our new and scary 21st Century world, this is more than odd. It is a disaster.