[ANALYSIS] Marine protected areas are failing: How new tech can help

Sarah Hurlock
[ANALYSIS] Marine protected areas are failing: How new tech can help
How can we design Marine Protected Areas that both effectively conserve endangered ecosystems and respect the rights of established fishing communities?

Scientists in the Philippines may have discovered an answer to one of marine conservation’s biggest questions: how can we design Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that both effectively conserve endangered ecosystems and respect the rights of established fishing communities?

When nearly half of the world’s population relies on fish for 20% of their yearly protein intake, we need to develop strategies for designing MPAs that will sustainably support our fish consumption. And with the current climate crisis already putting so much pressure on terrestrial and marine ecosystems alike? Now more than ever, this marine protection crisis deserves attention. (READ: Rappler Talk: Alexandra Cousteau’s stories on deep sea exploration and marine life)

In the spring of 2018, this team of scientists decided to open an investigation into effective MPA design, using Sogod Bay in the Philippines as a case study. Based on the objectives of Aichi Target 11 (a United Nations strategy aiming to protect 10% of the global marine environment by 2020) they pinpointed two main priorities: minimize the impact of MPAs on local fishing communities, and protect the widest range of biodiversity possible within the proposed MPA boundaries. They drafted 3 plans using 3 different approaches, comparing them for overall effectiveness. 

The first approach allowed individual coastal communities to identify MPA’s that they would support. The resulting system of MPAs, however, did not protect a wide enough range of marine biodiversity, and it affected some fishing communities more severely than others. (READ: PH is marine hotspot: Verde Island Passage yields 100 new species)

In the second approach, a national-scale conservation project selected the locations of MPAs, but this plan, while protecting a wider scope of marine biodiversity, also disproportionately affected fishing communities. 

The third and most successful approach, called the “systematic conservation planning approach,” involved a computer software called Marxan with Zones. Combining local input and biodiversity data using this software, the scientists were able to achieve all of their goals: the resulting network would meet Target 11’s biodiversity protection standards and minimally affect local fishing communities, removing only 16% of fishing grounds. 

The Achilles’ heel of this method may turn out to be how little it accounts for the particular patterns and life cycles of marine species within the proposed MPAs. As of yet, systematic planning technology only takes into account quantities of biodiversity without addressing the nuanced life histories of local marine species

However, the support and involvement of local communities might just make for the success of this design; a community involved in the design of an MPA is more likely to uphold its regulations, giving marine life within the MPA a chance to recover. The more recovery that occurs within well-regulated MPAs, the more likely it is that recovered populations will “spill over” or leave the reserve, replenishing fisheries in the surrounding area. 

Incorporating the input of local fishermen into MPA design should keep the peace as far as local response goes, but only time will tell if this network of MPAs will be as effective in protecting marine life as scientists hope. If this strategy is successful, it could revolutionize the design of MPAs everywhere, and contribute to the replenishment of depleted fisheries all over the world. – Rappler.com 

Sarah Hurlock studies conservation biology at Middlebury College. She hopes to pursue marine conservation and science communication after graduation. 

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