Why marine protected areas are not just about conservation

People often think that marine conservation organisations are too single-minded, merely focusing on environmental protection without considering the bigger picture or taking into account the other groups who rely on the seas too.

In fact, the converse is often true.

For many years, the Scottish Government believed that fishermen had more rights to our seas than anyone else and so, for a long time, COAST volunteers campaigned to have Scotland’s waters recognised as a common resource.

Thanks to the work of these volunteers (and that of COAST board member and Environmental lawyer Tom Appleby), on 24 June 2009 the Scottish Government recognised that the seas are a common resource.

The next steps have been to bring our seas back up to a level where they can act as a common resource for all.

Making environmental, social and economic sense

For the last few years, following the establishment in 2008 of Scotland’s first No Take Zone, in Lamlash Bay, COAST has been advocating for a wider marine protected area (MPA) in adjacent waters around the south of the island of Arran.

This proposed South Arran marine protected area, which would form part of a network of 33 MPAs in Scotland, would allow sustainable activities to continue but would protect ecosystems from damaging fishing practices.

Spider crab in a plumose anemone. Credit: Leigh Howarth/University of York.

Marine ecosystems are vulnerable to damage by certain fishing activities. Credit: Leigh Howarth/University of York.

We have, however, faced some fierce opposition to our proposed management options for the South Arran MPA.

Most of this has come from certain sectors of the fishing industry (notably those who use destructive methods such as trawling and dredging which cause immense damage to the seabed) who say that marine protected areas like the one we are proposing will destroy jobs, fishing communities and livelihoods.

This is simply not true.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of sustainable development principles that there needs to be a trade-off between jobs and conservation. Sustainable development is about regenerating and preserving our waters for all those who want to use them, both now and in the future.

One of the outstanding features of our work is the amount of community support behind it.

Whether it is creel fishermen (who use wicker traps), local divers or those in the tourism sector, we and our supporters firmly believe that MPAs will benefit coastal economies and that marine conservation measures are needed to underpin long-term jobs for the future.

We also believe that failing to recognise the wider economic values derived from natural assets leads to their overexploitation and inept decision-making for their management.

Securing healthy and productive seas makes economic, social and environmental sense. And there is evidence to back this up.

A report to the Scottish Environment LINK marine taskforce in November 2012 estimated that a network of marine protected areas in Scottish waters could provide £6.3–£10 billion of benefits over 20 years.

These benefits include increases in fish and shellfish populations in waters surrounding the MPAs, as fish stocks expand and spill-over into these surrounding fishing areas.

The report also looked at the economic benefits to sustainable fisheries (which include creeling, scallop diving and sea angling), as well as leisure and tourism activities such as sailing and motor cruising, scuba diving, coastal walks, kayaking, marine wildlife trips and visits to restaurants with locally caught and supplied seafood.

The better we manage our waters, the more we can all get out of them, not just in the short term, but for generations to come.

This was echoed in a recent TED talk by marine biologist Jackie Savitz who made the excellent point that on land there often needs to be a trade-off between biodiversity and food production, while in the seas the opposite is true.

The more biodiversity you have, the more food.

Save the oceans, feed the world – talk by Jackie Savitz. Courtesy of TED

The economic case for marine protection and Scottish MPAs is as strong as the conservation case, but if we don’t act soon and put proper management measures in place so that our seas can thrive, in a few decades there will be nothing left to protect.