Richard Branson Calls for more Marine Protected Areas

Billionaire philanthropist Richard Branson recently composed a brief article on his website to applaud recent efforts to expand marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world and to call for widespread no-take MPAs (marine reserves) on the high seas and in the exclusive economic zones of the developed world.

Of the efforts Branson highlights as positive steps forward, he cites The Bahamas efforts to protect at least 20% of its marine environment by 2020, the recent and controversial Ross Sea MPA proposal, and recent efforts by Pacific Island nations like Palau to fully protect upwards of 80% of its waters. Branson explains that, “science suggests we need to fully protect very large areas of ocean from destructive and extractive activities, so that at least 30% of the global ocean is fully protected,” but only 3% is currently marine reserve.

Branson believes the, “combination of overfishing, pollution and warming and acidifying seas,” can be alleviated by widespread, internationally agreed upon marine reserves:

“Now is the time for a massive groundswell that reflects the realities of the 21st century. So instead of destroying life in the sea, we must regenerate and rebuild it. Marine Protected Areas across the globe are the key to making sure this happens. From small to large, from the tropics to the icy frontiers, we need protection and we need to get moving on all fronts.”

Comment by James H. Cowan, Louisiana State University

Marine Protected Areas: are they conservation measures?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have become, in the eyes of many scientists, NGOs and lay people (most recently Richard Branson, CEO and owner of the Virgin empire), a solution for the overexploitation of fish populations and other marine aquatic animals (corals, sponges, gastropods, etc.) that are contained within their boundaries (Protect Planet Ocean) Many supporters of MPAs rightly acknowledge the many threats to the ocean, including climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, land based runoff, plastics, and overfishing. Then as a solution to these problems MPAs are proposed when, in fact, they impact none of these except legally regulated fishing, especially in the developed world where most fisheries are well managed. It is also important to note that most MPAs exclude commercial fishing, while recreational fishing is permitted. A Sciences paper published in 2004 indicated that recreational fishers account for 23% of the total US landings of the most relevant species (snappers, grouper, sea basses, several species of drums, etc.). Given the likelihood that recreational fishing mortality has increased since 2004, and is higher in MPAs the relevant species groups listed above are again indicative of poor planning.

There are approximately 5,000 MPAs designated around the world. Together, they cover an area of approximately 2.85 million km2, representing: 0.8% of the world’s 361 million km2 of ocean, or 2.0% of the 147 million km2 of ocean under national jurisdiction. Of the global marine area that is protected, only 300,000 km2 – i.e. just under 10% of the global MPA area is in marine reserves (i.e., ‘no-take’ MPAs). The graph below illustrates the proportion of the world’s oceans that has been included in a marine protected area or reserves since 1900, and how much remains unprotected.

From 1990 to 2012, the percentage of worldwide territorial waters set aside as MPAs has risen from 6.6% to 12.3%. In the United States MPAs now cover 22.5 to 30.4% of US territorial seas. Other sources report that as much as 2.8% of the global ocean is protected.

Percent of ocean protected by MPAs

Percent of ocean protected by MPAs

Most MPAs are small: the mean (average) size is 544 km2, but this is heavily skewed by the 10 largest MPAs. The median area is less than 5 km2. No take MPAs (marine reserves) tend to be even smaller: of 124 marine reserves studied by scientists, half of them were less than 3.75 km2 in size. Scientists recommend that the size of marine reserves and MPAs should range from at least 3 km2 to 13 km2. Only 35-60% of existing MPAs meet these minimum size recommendations. The vast majority of MPAs are located along or close to the coast.

Around half of the total MPA area is located in the tropics (from 30 degrees north to 30 degrees south). There is tacit acknowledgement in the scientific literature that MPAs, as they are currently designated, do not provide sufficient protection of marine resources. In a review of the scientific publications there is some disagreement about their effectiveness, although the majority of the papers still suggest they have positive impacts on fisheries, habitat within their boundaries, and an increase in ecotourism.

However, the marine policy literature takes a much dimer view. Policy experts have suggested that the words ‘marine protected area’ have been used inappropriately in most of the countries in the world. In Australia, it has been argued that misuse of these terms, either in ignorantly or deliberately, is part of the overstatement of the value of ‘protected areas’. Others have reported that the label “Marine Protected Area” has been haphazard, providing little rigor in identifying what is being protected, at what level, or why. They go on to say that the 14 National Marine Sanctuaries in the U.S. are often thought to be the leading examples of the U.S. marine reserve reserves system, but the protection they offer is largely only against oil and gas development. Based upon a review of the policy literature, the shortcomings of MPAs generally are: 1) that they are too small to be ecologically significant, 2) that they are inappropriately planned or managed, 3) that they can fail due to lack or protection of surrounding ecosystems, 4) that they do more harm than good due to the displacement and unintended consequences of management, 5) that they create the dangerous illusion of protection when no protection is occurring, and 6) that they fail because their planning is rarely integrated as part of broader marine spatial planning and ocean zoning efforts. They are not, even in a myopic sense, contributing to ecosystems based management.

MPAs–What have we learned?

It would seem that we find ourselves in the unusual situation where the policy experts are out in front in the discussion of the effectiveness of MPSs.   For example, in a recent letter published in Nature, Edgar and 25 more authors investigated 87 MPAs worldwide and found that the benefits of MPAs increase exponentially with the inclusion of key features including: no take, well enforced, old (>10 years), large (>100 km2), and isolated by deep water or sand. This is particularly troubling when one considers the finding in the letter suggesting that ‘no take’ and ‘large’ are attributes that improve the benefits of MPAs. This is a risky combination. From a fisheries perspective, large no take MPAs marginalize the populations of many of the species the reserves are meant to protect because the biomass that accumulates inside is not subtracted from allowable catches. Thus 100% of the catch is extracted from biomass outside of the reserve. This actuality can also apply to sensitive habitats out side of the reserves as well.

This suggests to me that we either have 1) not learned much (ignorance) about the effectiveness of MPAs, or 2) that these have caught the attention of the public and funding agencies as the most recent ‘sexy’ solution (deliberate) to overexploitation. Both are misguided. My point is made for me in the recent press release by Richard Branson concerning a major expansion of marine protected areas in the Bahamas is exactly the type of hype that leads to mismanagement of areas that MPAs are meant to protect. I am sure that Mr. Branson means well, as does the Bahamian government, but given the shortcomings of existing MPAs as a conservation and management tool I think we should step back and start thinking this through, thus avoiding the same mistakes over and over again simply because MPAs “delight” us.

James H. Cowan, Jr. is a Professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences and the Coastal Fisheries Institute at the Louisiana State University. Contact him here.
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  1. As a retired oceanographer from the Fisheries Lab in Woods Hole, Ma. who used to be the Recreational Fisheries Coordinator in the Northeastern USA and was a member of the New England Fishery Management Council’s Habitat Plan Development Team which helped develop Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2, my experience is that there are many MPAs that are not no take Marine Reserves. To provide two examples in the Gulf of Maine north of Cape Cod, I could start with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary which has allowed both commercial fishing and saltwater angling, since it was formed in 1990. In the OHA 2 dialog, the fishing industry turned out in force to oppose proposals to restrict their access to fishing within the SBNMS (designated research area and habitat protection zone). I supported the designated research area which would have restricted fishing, but allow scientists to evaluate the effects of climate change on groundfish stocks. The Gulf of Maine Cod stock has been impacted by warming waters which has increased natural mortality and the bycatch by other commercial fishing operations has used up most of the limited quota. The NEFMC is meeting in Portland, Me. this week to re-evaluate the GoM cod quota allocation

    During the NEFMC OHA2 process, the council decided not to make Cashes Ledge and the offshore canyons/seamounts in the GoM Habitat Areas of Particular Concern. HAPCs are a form of MPAs that only restrict fishing gear that impacts Essential Fish Habitat. Cashes Ledge contains unique hard substrate and kelp beds in the offshore area and the commercial and recreational fishing activities were confined to the water column. The offshore canyons and seamounts have deep sea corals and a small deep sea red crab fishery occurred in this area. Many marine ENGOs and academic scientists decided to support a National Monument resignation for Cashes ledge and the offshore canyons/seamounts through an Executive Order from the Obama Administration. NOAA Fisheries has been seeking public comments on the National Monument proposal (which is quite controversial amongst various stakeholders). This situation could have been avoided if the NEFMC had made these areas HAPCs during the OHA 2 process

    Thus in many cases MPAs can provide a compromise between sustainable fishing and those desiring conservation of marine habitat/protection of biodiversity.

  2. Quoting from Cowans: “…threats to the ocean, including climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, land based runoff, plastics, and overfishing.”

    Well, the MPAs are not protected from all the above. They only affect the living and wellbeing of coastal commercial and subsistence fisheries. The overfishing scare, is promoted by polluting, such as petrochemical, industries interested to draw public attention away from the pollution and other threats they produce. Powerful recreational fishing lobbies are also involved. For Mr.Branson’s attention.

    • Who, exactly, are the powerful recreational fishing lobbies you speak of? I am really interested. I have watched the red snapper season go from 365 days and four fish per angler to 7 days, two fish per angler with no fish for the captain or mates. It is pure precautionary science with no solid basis in the biomass or the health of the red snapper population.

      This happened despite many thousands of people sending many thousands of direct mails and emails and attending fishery management council meetings and electing politicians who promised protection of our recreational fishing space in Florida (and failed miserably to deliver). If you are talking about CCA or IGFA or any of the other so-called “fishing rights” groups, you will find their money is spent on administrative costs and rarely where it might do some good.

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