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Large ocean sanctuaries do not impact regional fishing industries

Today, Science Advances published a groundbreaking study demonstrating that large-scale, offshore, fully-protected marine areas, often referred to as MPAs, are critical for preserving biodiversity without posing detrimental effects on the fishing industry or food security. 

The study unveils the evidence drawn from the first-ever “before and after” assessment of the impact on the fishing industry from establishing Mexico’s Revillagigedo National Park.

The research team, composed of US and Mexican scientists, discovered that the industrial fishing sector in Mexico experienced no economic losses five years after the creation of the park, even with a comprehensive fishing ban within the MPA. 

This counters the common fears among fishermen and provides a reassuring response to the doubts raised by the Mexican industrial fishing lobby when the park was proposed. They argued that such a ban would negatively affect their catches and raise costs.

Where the study was done

Revillagigedo National Park, established in 2017, is also known as the “Galápagos of Mexico.” Ranking as the world’s 13th largest MPA, it stands as one of the few marine areas where all damaging human activities, including fishing, are strictly prohibited. 

This stringent protection aims to aid the recovery of marine populations in the region, which hosts a diverse array of marine life. It shelters not only a significant aggregation of sharks, manta rays, tuna, humpback whales, and five species of sea turtles, but also more than 300 species of fish, 36 of which are uniquely found within these waters.

Study co-author Enric Sala is an Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society and founder of Pristine Seas. He commented: “This study, utilizing satellite tracking of fishing vessels and artificial intelligence (AI), shows that the fishing industry’s concerns are unfounded.” 

Sala stressed that even the largest MPAs, which protect entire ecosystems and thousands of marine species, don’t impinge upon the fishing industry’s targeted species. “The larger the MPA, the larger the benefits.”

How the research team conducted the study

The study was undertaken by researchers from several institutions: the Mexican Center for Marine Biodiversity, UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Institute of Americas’ Gulf of California Marine Program, and the National Geographic Society. 

The experts scrutinized the behavior and productivity of the Mexican industrial fishing sector both before and five years after the introduction of North America’s largest fully protected MPA, the Revillagigedo National Park.

The researchers harnessed various data sources to conduct their study: satellite tracking data, fish catch records from the Mexican Fisheries Commission, and cutting-edge AI tools from the Allen Institute for AI’s Skylight platform. The ultimate objective was to determine if the creation of the MPA led to a reduction in fishing within the protected area, altered fishing catches, and caused the expansion of fishing into a larger area, which could consequently negatively affect marine biodiversity.

Dr. Fabio Favoretto, a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lead author of the study, underlined the importance of satellite tracking devices and AI monitoring platforms in demonstrating compliance from the fishing industry. 

Results of the study

The data revealed that the Revillagigedo National Park’s creation didn’t have any adverse effects on the Mexican industrial fleet’s catches or compel them to expand their fishing territories.

Additionally, the team employed machine learning to detect patterns associated with vessels. The satellite data analyzed were collected from GPS devices installed on approximately 2,000 fishing vessels. 

The Skylight platform revealed only sporadic incidents of illegal fishing within the MPA after its establishment in 2017, emphasizing the potency of technology in protecting the 147,000 square kilometers of waters within the park’s boundary.

Contradicting the Mexican fishing industry’s initial concern of losing 20 percent of their tuna and other pelagic catches the study provided convincing evidence that large, fully-protected MPAs can encourage a more sustainable and equitable use of the ocean without causing severe economic repercussions to the fishing industry.

Professor Octavio Aburto, co-author of the study and a marine biology expert at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, affirmed these findings. “Any argument to the contrary were just assumptions – this study provides the data to show that negative impacts to fishing do not exist,” said Aburto.

He hopes this research will spark productive conversations with the fishing industry, ultimately leading to improved fish stocks and better protection of biodiversity.

Safeguarding biodiversity

This research comes at a crucial juncture when nations are considering how to achieve the global goal set forth at the UN Global Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in December 2022, to protect and conserve at least 30% of the ocean by 2030. Furthermore, just last month, United Nations members agreed on a legally-binding instrument to safeguard biodiversity in international waters beyond national jurisdictions.

“If the world is serious about protecting the natural world – our life support system – we need to drastically increase ocean protection,” said Sala. “The clock is ticking until 2030.”

The world’s oceanic biodiversity, threatened by human activities such as overfishing, is rapidly diminishing, creating potential risks to food security, health, and the environment. By swiftly establishing marine protected areas in strategic ocean areas, the world can collectively secure more than 80 percent of the habitats of endangered species, a considerable leap from a current coverage of less than two percent.

Amid these global conversations, this study offers empirical evidence that large-scale MPAs within countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones can aid in reaching global conservation goals without compromising fisheries’ interests or a nation’s food security assurance.

Hope for the future

The results challenge the long-held belief, propagated by the industrial fishing lobby, that ocean protection damages fisheries. Instead, the study suggests new avenues to rejuvenate the industry that is currently struggling due to overfishing and the impacts of global warming. 

“Some argue that closing areas to fishing hurts fishing interests. But the worst enemy of fishing is overfishing and bad management – not protected areas,” said Sala. 

The findings of this study promise to enrich discussions in Mexico and elsewhere. Catalina López-Sagástegui, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Institute of Americas, believes that “access to data and technology is improving our collective understanding of marine ecosystems health, which allows us to design and implement MPAs that help restore the health and resilience of marine ecosystems, benefiting fisheries in the long term.”

Even those not directly involved in the study, like Dr. Reniel Cabral of James Cook University in Australia, concur with the study’s findings. “It’s simple: When overfishing and other damaging activities cease, marine life bounces back. Target species and large predators come back, and entire ecosystems are restored within MPAs. With time, the ocean can heal itself and again provide services to humankind,” said Dr. Cabral.

“MPAs are the most effective tool we have for protecting the health and diversity of our oceans,” said Sala. “Our study helps to dispel the myth put forward by the industrial fishing lobby that MPAs harm them.”

Funding for the study was provided by Oceans 5 and the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, underscoring their commitment to understanding and protecting our oceans. As the study’s findings make clear, protecting our oceans is not just about safeguarding marine life, it’s also about ensuring a sustainable future for our fishing industry, and ultimately, for us all.

More about Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are designated regions in the oceans or seas where human activities are more tightly regulated than in the surrounding waters to protect the natural or cultural resources contained within. 

These resources can include various types of marine life, such as fish, crustaceans, and coral reefs, or even archaeological sites like shipwrecks.

Benefits of MPAs 

Protecting Biodiversity 

MPAs can help preserve diverse ecosystems and marine species, many of which are threatened or endangered.

Maintaining Ecological Processes

They protect the ecological processes necessary for the survival of marine life, like breeding and feeding.

Supporting Fisheries

MPAs can improve the health of fish populations, leading to increased fish numbers and sizes, which can spill over into surrounding fishing areas.

Safeguarding Cultural Heritage

MPAs may protect culturally important sites and traditional fishing grounds.

Enabling Scientific Research

They offer opportunities for scientific research and monitoring of marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

Enhancing Tourism

Well-managed MPAs can attract tourists for wildlife watching, snorkeling, and scuba diving, thus benefiting local economies.

There are various types of MPAs with different levels of protection. Some allow sustainable fishing and other non-extractive activities, while others, known as “no-take” zones or marine reserves, ban all forms of extraction, including fishing and mining.

The percentage of the world’s oceans covered by MPAs is still far from the international target set in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and the newer 30×30 campaign, which aim to protect 30% of the Earth’s land and sea areas by 2030. It is crucial to continue expanding and managing MPAs effectively to safeguard our oceans’ health and biodiversity.


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