A significant majority of the people of Ireland are aware of the deterioration of the health of the oceans and want more efforts to protect marine life, including the use of Marine Protected Areas (MPA). The Citizens Assembly reinforced that we need to do a lot more to protect biodiversity.
We are lucky that only five marine species have gone extinct to date in the North Atlantic, according to the IUCN Red List, a critical indicator of the state of the world’s biodiversity. Whale populations are recovering from near extinction following an almost worldwide ban on their hunting. While the ocean may be wild it has not been pristine for centuries, and its health is suffering due to amongst other things, the direct and indirect effects of overfishing and pollution.
Marine Protected Areas are areas of our seas and coasts legally protected from activities that damage the habitats, wildlife and natural processes there. Most are partly protected because they allow some forms of fishing or other extractive activities (e.g., aquaculture, seaweed harvesting). So far, nowhere in Ireland’s seas is legally fully protected from all extractive activities.
Hundreds of scientific studies show how no-fishing MPA promote the recovery of commercial fish populations within only five to ten years. Despite the potential for MPA to displace a fishery to adjacent areas which are already fished, there is no evidence in the scientific literature of any reduction in fishery catch or value due to an MPA. This may seem surprising but is probably because MPA are often small, may not have supported a large fishery before protection, there was a need to reduce fishing in any case and some fishermen may have moved to other employment, and once established they begin to benefit fisheries by exporting fish to adjacent areas, what is known as the spill-over effect. In some cases, parallel fishery management measures to allow stocks to recover, such as reducing fleet size (decommissioning) and/or catch limits or methods, may conceal any short term MPA effect. The larger fish inside MPAs produce relatively more eggs for their size than smaller fish, leading to MPA boosting fishing nearby. Within ten to twenty years natural food webs recover, such as kelp forests previously over-grazed by sea urchins which had flourished in the absence of their large fish and lobster predators. This spill-over phenomenon is not surprising, and well known to commercial and recreational fishermen who fish the edges of MPA. The idea of not fishing an area to conserve a fishery has long been practised by indigenous people of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Thus, MPA show us what “natural” ecosystems are like and provide a reference point for gauging human impacts elsewhere.
Marine Protected Areas are a win-win for nature and people, and not expensive to implement. In contrast to active intervention needed to restore biodiversity on land, marine biodiversity generally recovers at no cost; we just need to stop the often unessential disturbances we cause (including killing marine wildlife) for it to self-restore. A change in the management of an area to a simpler form does not increase overall management costs, unless there was no management previously. However, in some cases there may be a need to improve associated tourism infrastructure, such as footpaths and toilets, for public access.
Fair Seas published the first of its kind Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Finance Report in Europe this summer, highlighting the cost to conserve and restore vital marine ecosystems as well as identifying potential funding streams. It shows how full protection of the marine ecosystem would be cheaper, and more effective, than partial protection.
There are social, economic, educational, scientific and climate benefits of MPA . But no doubt objections will surface at local scales where existing uses may be inconvenienced, just like when people may object to where a school, university, museum, hospital, or sports field is situated. It is especially important to involve local communities in the establishment of MPA because the MPA will only be a success with popular support.
Local communities and authorities will need to have a conversation about how to use marine resources sustainably. Some past practices will have to change and new practices, such as tourism, recreation, renewable energy generation, shellfish and seaweed aquaculture, may prove to be more environmentally sustainable and economically profitable. In financial terms, MPA are a capital investment in healthy ecosystems from which we benefit from the interest. Meanwhile, coastal fishing communities could gain increased custodianship over these public resources so as to benefit their communities. Indeed, as most MPA globally allow some kinds of fishing, MPA are an opportunity for coastal fishermen to be proactive in where and how MPA are planned so as to maximise local fishery benefits and sustainability.
The experience in New Zealand, which is 50 years ahead of Ireland in having no-fishing MPAs, called Marine Reserves, is that fish lose their fear of people and can be seen up close. New Zealand’s “Experiencing Marine Reserves” (https://emr.org.nz/) programme has taken tens of thousands of children and adults snorkelling in MPAs. Such “seeing is believing” and is why they have 44 marine reserves now and more planned. Imagine a future for Ireland where every coastal county and large town has a publicly accessible marine reserve where families and tourists can enjoy swimming, snorkelling, and diving amongst fishes unafraid of people.
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