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A provocative proposal: sell fishing rights in protected seas to prevent poaching

Marine protected areas can be a victim of their own success. By banning or restricting fishing within their waters, these reserves can build healthy populations of fish, with some swimming into neighboring waters where they can be caught. But sometimes the brimming schools are too much of a temptation, with poachers furtively darting into the protected zone for an illegal haul. Preventing this poaching is hard, experts say, because at-sea enforcement can be complicated and expensive.

Now, researchers have proposed a provocative and heretical-sounding solution: sell fishing rights within parts of plentiful marine reserves and use the money to guard other parts that remain off-limits. And in what might seem like a paradox, the approach could even end up producing more fish, the researchers reported on 17 November in Environmental Research Letters.

The proposal has received mixed reviews. “The idea may sound horrible,” says Christopher Costello, an environmental economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). And some say it’s far too risky because it could encourage governments to shrink reserves to nothing. “I don’t think you should be reducing existing no-take areas to allow more fishing,” says Jon Day, who spent 39 years helping manage Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. “That’s really dangerous.”

But other scientists and advocates are intrigued. “I could see the concept working,” says Matt Rand, who leads the large-scale marine habitat conservation program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It has a lot of promise.”

Poaching in marine protected areas is tricky to quantify but thought to be widespread. It ranges in scale from recreational anglers who fish without a license to industrial fleets that cross the ocean to grab fish, squid, and sharks. There are ways to combat it. In local fisheries, community customs and pressure can discourage scofflaws. Some rich nations, such as Australia, have spent decades designing and fielding defenses against poachers, including monitoring by patrol boats, aircraft, and satellites. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, for example, spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on education, monitoring, and enforcement. Yet for many nations, these tools are too costly.

Kat Millage, a marine researcher at UCSB, became interested in the issue when looking at data showing fishing activity near French Polynesia. The boats, which carry GPS equipment that allow satellites to track them, were lined up outside the country’s borders, presumably to intercept fish that swam across the boundary. “There was a really clear ring of fishing effort,” she says.

The demand was obvious, which made her think: What if those boats could pay to fish inside a restricted area? Millage, Costello, and colleagues created a computer model of the ecological and financial implications of such a trade-off. They gathered data including the typical cost of enforcing reserve restrictions, estimated what fines might be practical, and calculated the potential biological boost from reducing illegal harvests.

According to the simulation, protected reserves that sold some fishing rights would become richer, both biologically and financially. The researchers found that by allowing fishing inside one-quarter to one-half of a no-take zone and investing the revenue in enforcement, fish populations would increase by 13% compared with a reserve that suffers from poaching.

The authors admit there are many hurdles to implementing such systems. Corruption could short-circuit revenue streams if money ends up lining the pockets of bureaucrats. And developing countries may not have the management capacity to implement enforcement, says Brock Bergseth, a conservation scientist at James Cook University who was not involved in the study. “I question how applicable it would be,” Bergseth says. “The devil’s in the details.”

The fishing community also might not be thrilled. The proposal might make economic sense, but it would be “totally controversial” if fishers had to start paying to access an area where they previously fished for free, says Bárbara Costa, a marine biologist at the University of Algarve’s Centre of Marine Sciences. (Costello and Millage think some fisheries will accept user fees, as with trophy hunting, forestry, and other private harvesting of public resources.) Equity would be another issue, especially where large firms might outbid local people for fishing rights. “Immediately the question is who gets to purchase a lease,” says Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis.

Selling fishing rights also won’t be appropriate in some reserves, such as no-take areas established primarily to benefit sensitive habitats or endangered species such as migrating whales that might get caught in fishing gear. “Opening and closing areas works for fishing, but it doesn’t work for corals or whales,” Day says.

Still, Joachim Claudet, an ecologist who studies marine reserves at CNRS, the French national research agency, likes the concept even if it shrinks a strictly protected area. “From a conservation point of view, it is better to have [a smaller protected area] that is working than something big that is not working.” (But Claudet says many reserves currently face a challenge more serious than poaching: The huge majority that do allow some fishing lack regulations that sufficiently protect fish stocks.)

Meanwhile, the ocean area within marine reserves has grown considerably in recent years, but operating budgets have often failed to keep pace. The financial mismatch could get worse, experts say, as nations push to expand protections to 30% of the world’s oceans. “The danger is … you have people putting no-take areas on maps without good plans for how they’re going to manage and enforce them,” says Kathryn Matthews, chief scientist of Oceana, a conservation organization. “You just create [marine protected areas] that don’t work. There’s illegal fishing, there’s no management, and no one wins in this scenario.”

Source: Science Mag