Ocean protection for humans and other animals

People are funny things.  For years and years marine conservationists have been pushing for marine protected areas, but have often struggled to get sites designated.  Then began a trickle of very large marine protected areas, which in more recent years has gained momentum.  For example, in 2010 we saw a giant reserve around Chagos.  2012 came with the announcement of two large areas in the waters of Australia and South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands.  Then earlier this year, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was announced.  In a political sense, bigger has become better and it seems many a nation want in on this game. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a very diverse tool.  Just look at the IUCNdefinition of protected areas….

"A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values"

That’s a pretty big remit, which presents a challenge for MPA managers. Providing conservation value AND providing benefits to human communities is not an easy thing to do, and perhaps not possible in every single case.  For example, if you want to restore a heavily overfished reef, then it’s best not to allow fishing.  On the other hand, if you want an area that can produce a sustainable fishery, then fishing needs to occur.   This is not to say that all MPAs can’t provide any benefits for conservation AND human communities simultaneously.  Indeed in situations where human populations are heavily dependent on marine resources, conservation is vital for sustaining long-term human benefits.  

Understanding how win-win (or as close to as possible) situation can come about is hugely important for successful conservation management.  There has been a wealth of papers that show how well thought-out, well-managed MPAs can achieve their objectives – whether those objectives primarily focus on ecological/biological benefits, or improving human welfare.  

There is also a host of literature that is highlighting how poorly designed and managed protected areas have reduced conservation value – both for people and the animals that reside in them.  Contrary to what World leaders may thing, when it comes to MPAs, quantity is not everything.  For researchers like Nathan Bennett of The University of British Columbia and Phil Dearden of the University of Victoriaensuring that MPAs are quality products that benefit all species that use the ocean ecosystem – that is to say humans and other animals, is of vital importance.  So what are the factors that can contribute towards MPAs that have both positive ecological AND socio-economic outcomes?

Every MPA is different, and not just in terms of their objectives.  They are situated in different environments, with different collections of flora and fauna.  The threats MPAs face (or are attempting to mitigate against) also vary in type, frequency, and magnitude.  How humans use MPAs and the surrounding areas also varies, and the communities that utilize the ocean resources are also very different from each other.  The governance structures are different, and the resources available to managers and stakeholders are different.  The result is that there cannot be a one-stop framework on developing better MPAs, but there are some overarching themes for increasing MPA success.  Focusing on MPAs in ‘Low Development Countries’, Nathan and Phil divided these themes into three overarching – and indeed related inputs: governance, management, and local development.  Very human-centric yes, but we can only manage our interactions with the environment so if we want to look after it better, it is on ourselves we need to focus management.  There is a fair bit of information in this paper, so here’s just a quick look at what comes under each of these inputs:

Governance Nathan and Phil define this as ”the structural, institutional, ideological, and procedural umbrella under which development programs and management practices operate” .  Some of the indicators of effective governance in terms of MPAs are pretty specific, like clearly defining any rights and tenure arrangements, having a broader scale form of management in which the MPA sits, like ecosystem-based management, or inter-coastal zone management plans.  Some are more related to good governance in itself, like having laws, policies, and local norms clear and consistent, transparency in the decision-making process, and stakeholder participation.

Management It’s pretty obvious isn’t it -a successful MPA needs effective management.  Unfortunately there are many a MPA without a management plan let alone an effective one.  Management is influenced by, among many things, the “ availability of resources, legislative and public support, levels of cross-scale coordination and cooperation ”.  So let’s just say that there is actually a management plan in place.  This needs adequate financial and human resources to carry the management out.  There needs to be effective enforcement, baseline data collection, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation - and not just of the MPA, but of the management plan itself.  Is it achieving the objectives?  Are those objectives realistic? Do we need to adapt the plan?  Then there is the people-side like conflict resolution processes, ensuring that there are sufficient facilities for visitors, education and environmental awareness programs, and effective communication.

Local Development If we want to reduce our pressure on marine ecosystems then we need viable alternative livelihood options for those who depend on marine resources.  For fishery dependent communities, such alternative may be few and far between.  So we need to create them.  And by we, I mean a participatory process, not just because it is the ethical thing to do, or because including local knowledge and systems into conservation management is extremely useful for effective MPAs, but because ” Rarely are livelihoods initiatives imposed by organizations from the outside sustained over the long-term” .  Conservation isn’t just about places and non-human animals, it’s also about people.  Aside from participation, things like capacity building programs to provide people with new skills, ensuring that the MPA benefits result in a benefit to local people equitably, and of course monitoring and crucially evaluating the socio-economic outcomes of local development to ensure that they are on track.  And if things aren’t shaping up so well, we need to adapt again.

Nathan and Phil have by no means produced an exhaustive framework.  Give it a few years and I would expect to see some alteration as our understanding of what factors produce successful MPAs increases.   Sure, increasing our understanding of these factors won’t mean that creating MPAs with both positive ecological AND socio-economic outcomes suddenly becomes a walk in the park, but it could make the journey for managers and stakeholders a little less rocky.

The open access paper is published in the journal Marine Policy - you can have a read of it yourself here http://www.dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2014.05.005

Image: Small-scale fishers from Koh Yao Noi on the Andaman Coast of Thailand.  Credit: Nathan Bennett.