The Downside of 'Paper Parks'


In a new study in the journal Conservation Letters, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego find that the success of current worldwide efforts to protect marine biodiversity can sometimes be riskily overstated.

The study led by Scripps graduate student Alexis Rife, “When good intentions are not enough… Insights on networks of ‘paper park’ marine protected areas,” examines the efficacy of established Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), regions of the ocean where human activities are limited and ecosystems allowed to recover.

“After the results of our study, we believe there should be a new philosophy to design and implement MPAs around the world; one that considers co-management schemes with better intra-government cooperation and enhanced socioeconomic incentives,” said Rife.

Where successful, MPAs have increased stocks in local fisheries via the spillover of healthy fish populations from the reserves to surrounding regions with active fishing. In addition, communities near MPAs benefit from eco-tourism made possible by a healthy local marine environment.  Successful examples of MPAs have proven that these benefits are not just theoretical, and have made the establishment of these areas a stated goal of the United Nations-associated Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Rife and her coauthors – Octavio Aburto-Oropeza and Brad Erisman from Scripps and Alexandra Sanchez from Centro para la Biodiversidad Marina y la Conservación, La Paz, Baja California, Mexico – were inspired to begin the study when the CBD decided to push back its deadline for reaching 10 percent MPA coverage of the world’s oceans from 2012 to 2020. The team was troubled by the move. To them, it was evidence not only that the process to develop MPAs has moved slower than expected (so far only 1.4 percent of the world’s oceans are in MPAs), but that the variable efficacy of established MPAs is not being considered.

“Reaching 10 percent is not a guarantee of success, considering that there is a growing body of literature showing failures of MPAs from 2002 to 2012. Simply establishing MPAs can create a false sense of security, which we fear will make the situation even worse,” said Aburto-Oropeza.

In order to assess the stated goal of the CBD, the researchers reviewed the network of MPAs that have been established in the Gulf of California, Mexico, a highly biodiverse region whose fisheries have become very strained due to overfishing.  In the Gulf of California, a network of 10 MPAs has been established covering nearly 10 percent of the entire gulf. Since this coverage meets the stated goal of the CBD, what is happening in the Gulf of California provides a model of what might happen globally if the set goal is reached in 2020.

 The Scripps-led study reviewed reports on the Gulf of California MPAs and noticed that the large majority of them have not met set goals. They are sometimes indistinguishable from surrounding areas. The study identifies several related factors that account for the failures of so many.

The team was surprised to find that budgets available to MPAs in the Gulf of California appear to be sufficient for their effective management, but a look at how they operate shows why their mere existence does not automatically protect ocean ecosystems.

Part of the problem, say the researchers, results from the inability of MPA management agencies to enforce the restrictions vital for MPAs to be successful. Regulators must contend with a complicated web of requirements that must be met for MPA regulations to be enforced. A government agency called the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP) is responsible for MPA management. A separate government agency, the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Environment (PROFEPA), has the jurisdiction to monitor MPAs for illegal activity. In order to enforce MPA regulations, CONANP must sign an agreement with yet another government agency in charge of fisheries. This agreement currently exists in only four Gulf of California MPAs. When this agreement is in place, if PROFEPA finds illegal fishing activity, it must then call the Navy to actually enforce the law. Combined with the fact that PROFEPA itself has an insufficient budget and staffing for the job (only 14 employees monitor the entire Gulf), most MPAs in the Gulf of California see virtually no enforcement. Although these problems may seem specific to Mexico, the researchers say that these types of situations are the rule, not the exception. Similar bureaucratic juggling is required for MPA enforcement worldwide, including in many developed countries.

MPA failure is not due to lack of enforcement alone. With notable exceptions, most of the Gulf of California MPAs have little support from local communities, without which there is little hope that enforcement will ever be successfully implemented. These communities, already strained by dwindling fisheries, are usually not a part of the process to develop MPAs.

“When the community is excluded, MPAs become a process of restriction rather than co-management,” said Erisman. “This places MPAs in direct conflict with local fisheries, when really they should be used as a tool within fisheries management.”

To illustrate what happens with community support, the researchers point to one Gulf of California MPA, Cabo Pulmo National Park, which despite being one of the Gulf’s smallest parks, has been enormously successful. In contrast to most of the Gulf of California MPAs, the driving force behind the development of Cabo Pulmo’s MPA was local leadership. In Cabo Pulmo, 35 percent of the park is officially designated as “no-take” for fishing, but because of the support and enforcement by the local community, the entire park has, in reality, become no-take. As a result of this, recovery of the marine ecosystem in Cabo Pulmo has been extraordinary. The total fish population in the park saw a 460 percent increase in just ten years, to the mutual benefit of community and the ecosystem there.

The Cabo Pulmo National Park serves as an inspiring example of the potential of MPAs to improve environments and local economies, said the researchers.

“We need a new philosophy to implement MPAs in order to take advantage of all the scientific knowledge and monetary investment that has been generated worldwide. How will governments and communities come together to create effective MPAs? Which financial institutions will help with these endeavors? If we do not answer and then act upon these questions, we will likely reach 2020 without accomplishing the CBD's goal,” said Aburto-Oropeza.


–  Kelley Gallagher is a fourth-year student with microbial ecologist Paul Jensen

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