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Fish conservation does not have to mean neglecting people

Facing the global challenge of declining fish stocks, over 190 countries have committed to establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) covering around one-third of the world’s oceans by 2030. These designated zones, where fishing activities are regulated or prohibited, aim to support marine biodiversity recovery. 

However, a recent study reveals the potential socioeconomic challenges these MPAs pose to coastal communities reliant on fishing for sustenance, income, and cultural heritage.

Focus of the study 

This analysis, led by a global team of researchers from Duke University, Florida State University, the World Wildlife Fund, and other organizations, reviewed over 14,000 fish surveys across 216 MPAs in 43 countries. 

The findings underscore the effectiveness of fully protected MPAs in rejuvenating fish populations but also highlight the complexities of implementing such measures in areas where local and indigenous communities depend on fishing.

Ethical considerations 

“In those under-resourced and culturally important areas, it would be unethical to take away local and indigenous people’s rights to harvest and eat fish,” said lead author David Gill, an assistant professor of marine science and conservation at Duke University’s Marine Lab.

This statement highlights the ethical considerations necessary when enforcing fish conservation measures that impact traditional ways of life.

A practical compromise 

The study suggests that multiple-use MPAs, which allow for regulated fishing, could serve as a practical compromise. 

“Many people, especially those in coastal communities, have strong food, job, or cultural ties to the ocean,” said co-author Dominic Andradi-Brown, a lead marine scientist at World Wildlife Fund. 

“Our results show that big gains for nature don’t have to come at the cost of excluding people. Future ocean protection and conservation that is tailored to allow a range of uses can be successful – provided that good management is in place.”

It’s not all or nothing

The research indicates a 97% likelihood of fish population improvement within both no-take and multiple-use MPAs, contingent upon effective management and sufficient staffing. 

Gill advocates for a strategic combination of these MPA types, tailored to local needs. “It’s not an all-or-nothing game. There are options out there to get positive results. You can get benefits from marine protected areas where fishing is allowed. But they have to be done well.”

This nuanced approach to marine conservation aims to balance ecological objectives with the socio-economic realities of coastal communities. 

Broader implications 

“A key takeaway from these results is that context matters. There is no cookie-cutter approach to effectively, and equitably, protect the world’s marine ecosystems. We need to consider what mix of conservation approaches are best for the local context and then invest in managing them fairly, and managing them well,” explained Gill.

This perspective calls for a considerate and adaptable strategy in the global effort to safeguard marine biodiversity while respecting human dependencies on marine resources.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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