Protecting Sea Life

Marine Reserves

Marine protected areas that afford significant protection from fishing are strikingly effective in rebuilding marine ecosystems. A growing body of experience from across the world shows that in aggregate, exploited fish stocks typically increase by two to three times within two to five years of protection. Some species increase more than ten-fold. In Florida, from example, densities of yellowtail snappers Ocyurus chrysurus were up by 15 times in Sanctuary Protection Zones after fours years of a fishing ban. Gains are due to growth of fish as well as rising numbers. In three New Zealand reserves protected for up to 20 years, for example, densities of legal size snapper Pagrus auratus were 14 times greater than in fished areas. Scallops in New England fishery closures became 25 times more abundant after nine years protection.

Image of Atlantic spadefish Hol Chan Marine Reserve Wherever real protection from fishing has been given, reserves have worked well. Benefits have been seen in reserves from tropical through cool temperate habitats, reefs to muddy continental shelves, shallow water to deep sea, and artisanal to industrial scale fisheries. Not all animals benefit equally of course. Less mobile species will gain greater protection from reserves than wide ranging animals. Complex habitats built by organisms like corals and sponges will see greater benefits from protection than shallow wave swept sediments. But reserves provide the conditions necessary for any exploited habitat to recover from the impacts of fishing. They are the most powerful tool we have for conservation of the sea.

Despite the many successes of areas protected from fishing, there is widespread misunderstanding of the role of marine protected areas, even within conservation organizations. In developed countries in particular, talk of protection from fishing is seen as dangerous. The fishing lobby is so powerful, that creating marine protected areas that exclude fishing is often viewed as too difficult. So government agencies and some NGOs are today pursuing protected areas that offer little real protection from fishing. A few years ago, ahead of a trip to Canada, I browsed the Parks Canada website entry on a proposed marine park off the south coast of Nova Scotia. The intention, they were at pains to make clear, was not to stop fishing in this park but to achieve sustainable fisheries. But marine reserves can only support fisheries by offering refuges from fishing within which stocks can rebuild and ecosystems can recover. Without such protection neither fish nor fisheries will see gains. Apologist statements about fishing do nobody any good and parks may be created on promises that they cannot deliver. And if we are not to seek protection from fishing in marine protected areas, then where on earth in the sea are we going to protect?

If protection from hunting is not the goal, then what is a marine protected area? I came across a telling image on a visit to Nova Scotia in a seaside shop selling tourist trinkets. On the wall was a picture of a sinking ship with the headline above: The Lunenburg Marine Park. I have never understood scuba divers’ enthusiasm for junk, yet junk is so often associated with marine parks and recreation. A burned out hot-dog van would be an offence to the soul on land, but underwater seems to exert some magical appeal. Perhaps our enthusiasm for sinking ships is because we can find nothing else to look at. Our expectations underwater have been so badly let down that we must fill the void with something. Imagine that instead of waterfalls, side trails in Yosemite led to wrecked trucks or coils of rusting steel cable. Unthinkable!

Governments across the world have committed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 to establish national networks of marine protected areas by 2012. A global network of marine protected areas could end the long, slow death of marine life. But as we go about the task it is essential to keep at the front of our minds that real conservation and protection from fishing are indivisible. The machinery of extraction has been too successful, for at least the last century, for sustainability to be achievable without fully protected marine reserves. Our success in restraining fishing effort has been slight. Even in Europe, a place with quality science, highly developed regulatory structures and sophisticated surveillance we have failed. The proud record of Europe’s fishery managers is to see the percentage of stocks in danger of collapse rise from 7% in 1970 to 48% in 2000. If sustainable fisheries are the goal, then large-scale networks of marine reserves off limits to fishing are essential.

We can rebuild marine ecosystems by closing areas to fishing, but we cannot do so by creating ‘protected’ areas that fail to greatly restrain fishing. Without refuges from fishing sustainable fisheries will remain just as elusive as they are today. The time for apology is over: returning large tracts of the oceans to the wild is a necessity. The best available science suggests that a global system of marine protected areas will need to protect around one third of the sea from fishing to keep ocean ecosystems healthy and the world’s fishing industry in business. One estimate puts the cost of this protection at US $12-14 billion per year, less than the $15-30 billion the world currently spends on subsidies that prop up harmful levels of fishing effort, and less than half the amount Americans and Europeans spend on ice-cream. Future generations will never forgive us if we fail to take this opportunity to save our marine life and fisheries.

Find out more about marine reserves:

Callum Roberts, Leanne Mason and Julie Hawkins. (2006) Roadmap to Recovery: A Global Network of Marine Reserves. Greenpeace International.
Vision and blueprint for a global network of marine reserves on the high seas.

Fiona Gell and Callum Roberts (2003) The Fishery Effects of Marine Reserves and Fishery Closures. WWF-US, Washington, D.C., USA (
Detailed review of the evidence that marine reserves can support fisheries with many case studies.

Fiona Gell and Callum Roberts (2003) Benefits beyond boundaries: the fishery effects of marine reserves. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18, 148-155
Summary review of the evidence that marine reserves support fisheries

PISCO (2002) The Science of Marine Reserves. Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans. Oregon State University.
Introduction to the science underpinning marine reserves.

Callum Roberts and Julie Hawkins. (2000) Fully Protected Marine Reserves: A Guide. Endangered Seas Campaign, WWF-US, Washington DC, and University of York, UK.
An introductory guide to marine reserves.

Callum Roberts, Ben Halpern, Steve Palumbi and BobWarner. (2001) Designing Networks of Marine Reserves: Why Small, Isolated Protected Areas Are Not Enough. Conservation Biology in Practice 2(3): 10-17.
Why marine reserves need to be established in networks to function properly.

Callum Roberts, Julie Hawkins and Fiona Gell (2005) The role of marine reserves in achieving sustainable fisheries. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 360: 123-132.
How marine reserves can support other fishery management measures to help achieve sustainable fisheries

Andrew Balmford, Pippa Gravestock, Neil Hockley, Colin McClean and Callum Roberts. (2004) The Worldwide costs of marine protected areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 101: 9694-9697.
The estimated costs of a global marine protected area network.