The great race to establish the world’s biggest MPA is on. You would be forgiven for thinking that this management tool – establishing vast areas where fishing of any type is prohibited – is the carefully considered best solution to a carefully described problem. You would, however, be wrong.
Most of the largest MPAs are established by opportunity – a flagrant example of “a solution desperately seeking a problem”. When that problem has not much to do with over-fishing or destructive fishing, that inconvenient truth is shrugged away. Big MPAs grab attention and attract donors. What donor would not want to be associated with the world’s biggest MPA, especially if the designation is done so quickly and so deliciously cost-effectively?
After all, assessments take time! And harnessing the social science needed to guide planning (and to predict outcomes) takes even more. Determining what levels of which uses are appropriate to particular ecosystems sucks up considerable resources, and harnessing that information to create a systematic and strategic plan for management takes even more. Then there is the unfortunate reality check of ‘will it fly?’, which can set planners back even further as they make the adjustments needed to ensure that the resulting MPA – if that is really the best solution to the problems described – does not join the legion list of paper parks.
Who has time for all that?!
Big international NGOs, long driving the use of MPAs, inadvertently created this race. Complicit governments, keen for a big win-win, fuelled the madness. Smaller NGOs that are invested in careful planning, in working with communities or across a wide range of stakeholders, and painstakingly amassing the social and natural science base for a designation (processes that require time, negotiation, and compromise) find themselves unable to compete. And the dull work of planning authorities and regional bodies is stopped dead in its tracks as they get their budgets slashed – shame on them for not being innovative, taking risks, coming up with splashy proposals to ‘fully protect’ thousands of square kilometres from those nasty fishermen! (Never mind that some of those very same governments prop up those nasty fishermen with perverse subsidies, or that all of us have a role in perpetuating the great insatiable wave of consumer demand – not just for seafood but for food in general, farmed with feed and fertilizer drawn from the plundered seas.)
In a perfect world, perhaps, none of this would matter. We could have the humungous MPAs in all their glory, and forgive their inability to address the real and pertinent issues those ecosystems face, because we could say (as many have, even here on OpenChannels) that drawing attention to these places is inherently good, and tackling large-scale industrial and commercial fisheries at the scale they operate justifies the end. Even if there is precious little chance that the regulations can be enforced (in vast open ocean areas where fishing is going on), or are even needed (in vast ocean areas where it is not).…
In that perfect world it wouldn’t matter because we’d also have other, carefully planned MPAs, developed in response to problem-scoping and supported by a broad range of users, wholly enforceable and set up to track performance over time so that adjustments can be made. And not only that: in this perfect world, those strategic MPAs are just the starting point – one element in a rational system of looking at human needs, and impacts, and ways to meet those needs while minimizing impacts. MPAs: nodes of special protection in a sea of planned use and broad stewardship. It does sound perfect, doesn’t it?
But, alas, our world is inexorably, maddeningly imperfect. While the huge, toothless, ill-considered MPAs get their day in the sun, and the race victors slap one another on the back for a job well done, we daren’t count the opportunity costs: growing resentment towards conservation, limited funds and public attention squandered.
Witness what has happened in the UK, where a careful planning process involving thousands of hours of stakeholder consultation, a rigourous science foundation, the best available planning tools, and difficult, drawn-out negotiation resulted in the identification of 127 Marine Conservation Areas…which the current Environment Minister blithely ignored (agreeing to a paltry 31 sites from the list, with none of them no-take). Presumably austerity dictates the need to undermine the hard work of planners – but should no one ask how wasting all the time and money spent on planning and stakeholder engagement, not to mention awareness-raising and education, is justified in times of austerity? And does no one in the coalition government understand that strategic protection of marine and coastal sites is a way to strengthen, not weaken, the nation’s economy? At the same time, we have the Right Honourable David Miliband, M.P., co-chair of the freshly launched Global Ocean Commission, pattering on about how the plundering of the high seas is folly. Convenient to look beyond one’s own waters, certainly.
We are running out of time. Our conservation attention must first and foremost be focused on places, and issues, in which we are approaching points of no return. Proposing large and meaningless MPAs not only grabs attention, it diverts attention – away from tools, regulations, and policies that could really make a difference. I’m all for a race, but let’s have a more meaningful finish line, and stakes we can all believe in – please.
The anonymous Message in a Bottle blog allows members of the ocean planning/management community to get things off their chest and make points they ordinarily might not make in public. The writer will constantly change. We will not allow personal attacks but otherwise are open-minded. If you would like to submit an entry to Message in a Bottle, please jdavis [at] openchannels.org (Subject: Message%20in%20a%20Bottle) (click here).