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June 22, 2021

Ask Dr. Pauly: Why is the creation of marine protected areas such a contentious issue?

White and light blue dots representing fishing vessels are shown around the perimeters of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), outlined in yellow.
Global Fishing Watch. 2018. Accessed on February 9, 2021.


Writing to explain why we need marine protected areas (MPAs) is straightforward: Fishing or otherwise harming marine life will reduce marine life’s abundance. Hence, not fishing or otherwise harming marine life should have the opposite effect of enhancing it. So, what is the rub? Why is it necessary to repeatedly write that MPAs are needed to protect marine life from industrial, largely out-of-control fisheries pillaging the world’s oceans? And why are there still so few MPAs?

The first reason is that MPAs are ferociously opposed in most countries by the fishing industry despite MPAs contributing to high catches in areas near them (see image above). The other reason is that the public-at-large, in most countries, still doesn’t ‘get’ that seascapes and the wildlife they contain – including fish – need to be protected from our depredations in the same manner that landscapes and their flora and fauna are.

On land, we have national parks. Hardly anyone argues that we do not need them to maintain forests or other terrestrial ecosystems and the animals therein, whether it is deer, elk, wolves, and bears in Canada, or zebras, wildebeests, and lions in Kenya.

Fish are not commodities-in-waiting, created to be processed into breaded sticks. They are wildlife, and if we put no limit on their hunt, their populations will decline and disappear, just as elks and zebras would if hunted relentlessly. However, informing the public about MPAs is difficult. There are always bigger issues to consider; also, the associated issues are complicated, notably because there are different types of MPAs.

MPAs can be small and allow lots of activities – including angling – within their limits. Such MPAs are often ineffective in enhancing the fish populations they are supposedly designed to protect. Alternately, MPAs can be large ‘marine reserves’ that are well-enforced and protect a vast array of species and habitats.

The large MPA created by the U.S. government around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands – called the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument – is an example of an effective new marine reserve. This example is being emulated throughout the world; Chile created large marine reserves around its oceanic islands, the UK declared the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean a large no-take area, and Kiribati created the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).

An immense literature documents the many benefits of MPAs, which not only allow for marine biodiversity to recover from injuries inflicted by fisheries, but also help in the fight against global warming and contribute to the sustainability of fisheries and availability of trophy fish.

The benefits for fisheries may seem counterintuitive to non-biologists (how can not fishing be good for fisheries?) but are not difficult to explain. If a previously overfished area is strongly protected, the area’s fish population will increase, and, after a while, this area will become crowded. Therefore, fish will leave this area, and fishers, including anglers, will have excellent catches at the MPA borders; This is known as ‘fishing the line.’

A quasi-MPA surrounds Cape Canaveral, i.e., an area where fishing is prohibited, and ‘fishing the line’ around that area is – oh, irony – one of the few places where you can get trophy fish in Florida, where MPAs are vociferously fought against by anglers’ associations. Thus, those who oppose MPAs may do well to ponder the ways they benefit from them.

Dr. Daniel Pauly is the founder and director of the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. He is also a member of the Oceana Board. This column appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Oceana Magazine. Read it online here.