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"Just add water" approach not the way for MPAs

Friday 24 May 2019

Marine Protected Areas, the holy grail of the international environmental movement, are not the most effective way to safeguard species and ecosystems.

That is the view of visiting US economist Dr Gary Libecap, who has just completed a four-month residency at Canterbury University.

He called for a more flexible, incentive-based, inclusive approach to achieve lasting conservation, drawing on 40 years of academic research, 100 peer reviewed journal papers and case studies of MPAs in the Pacific Ocean.

Worldwide preservation and conservation of the marine environment has never been more topical, or more urgent than it is now.

Libecap, a Distinguished Professor of Corporate Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, does not question the concern about marine conservation but he does take issue with the method.

He told a seminar last week at Chapman Tripp’s Wellington office, co-sponsored by Te Ohu Kaimona and the Law and Economics Association of New Zealand, that this country could be a world leader in delivering 100 percent sustainably managed fisheries and ocean resources with less contentious, collaborative support.

But that would not be by unilaterally declaring sanctuaries such as the Kermadecs, which was potentially in conflict with the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1992 Maori Fisheries Settlement and the Quota Management System.

An alternative template was to restart with meaningful inclusion of Maori, other quota holders and additional parties and define objectives in measurable ways.

That should include updates and timelines, a cost/benefit analysis and potential compensation.

MPAs did not take account of fish migration and other marine ecosystem changes and are only as durable as the political will to maintain them.

He advocated incentives to collaborate in ecosystem protection as part of marine fishery controls, as introduced in Canada and the US.

That would include defining a Total Allowable Catch for key ecosystem attributes, distributing tradeable shares amongst QMS holders and curtailing fisheries if agreed limits were exceeded.

He said New Zealand was the gold standard in terms of fisheries management and could build on that in marine protection.

He cited a New York Times editorial (March 20, 2018) headed Bigger is Not Better for Ocean Conservation by Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences that was critical of the “just add water” approach to marine protection.

It argued that countries should create MPAs only where they can make a real difference in safeguarding marine life.

Some were placed where there was no evidence of threat, Libecap said.

And some were based on faulty assumptions such as the Channel Island reserves in Santa Barbara, where lobster fishing was banned to control sea urchins and improve kelp stands.

Five years later it was found reef character and tides were the key influencers, while those fishers forced out received no compensation.

He quoted Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom’s work on governing the commons.

She found trust and proportionate sharing of benefits and costs were critical elements of successful MPAs, whereas meaningful involvement of indigenous communities or locals was rare.

“The socio-economic effects are missing,” Libecap said. “How do these affect people?”

The UN global objective is 10 percent of the ocean surface locked up in MPAs by 2020, tripling to 30 percent by 2030.

Coverage at the end of 2017 was about 6 percent.

This was made up of 14,688 fully protected areas covering about 23 million square kilometres, ranging in size from just one square kilometre to the largest at 1.5 million.

New Zealand has 44 MPAs, all relatively small, although 30 percent of New Zealand’s huge Exclusive Economic Zone, the world’s fourth largest, is designated as Benthic Protected Areas, where bottom trawling or dredging is prohibited.

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