Europe and Central Asia
6 Jul 2015

Why protected areas matter

Zakynthos, Ionian Sea © Greek National Tourism Organisation
By Bruna Campos

This summer when you visit the seaside you might come across a stretch of beach that’s off limits – a coastal ’marine protected area’. You might get annoyed when looking down at that empty glorious soft sand, and then have to turn back to that tourist packed, noise polluted beach…why would anyone do this to you? Don’t take it personally, an off limit beach isn’t there to offend, it serves a purpose. It’s a special place that has been set aside to protect a wild animal, plant, or habitat.

Just think, if you wouldn’t enjoy a beach jammed with tourists, what animal would? Take sea turtles, who burrow their eggs in the sand – tourists on the beach can only mean one thing: a mixture of scrambled eggs and sand. Even worse, sea turtles wouldn’t dare venture up onto a beach in the first place if they spotted people sprawled on towels, children running around, kites flying, and beach volleyball courts. Obviously, an area that’s protected doesn’t mean you can’t go to another beach to sunbathe, take a dip and enjoy – it’s just that some of the coast needs to be shared with wild animals and plants that wouldn’t otherwise survive if people were around.

Misconceptions run deep for marine protected areas, such as Natura 2000 sites, as they are often seen as blocking economic and human pleasures. But what does it actually mean to protect a marine site? Indeed, one of the purposes can be to limit some activities to safeguard a cliff because it’s an important seabird breeding site, or protect a vital offshore feeding ground for whales, or even a key reef habitat for sustaining corals (yes we have corals in Europe!). However, it also means encouraging sustainable human activities that have limited impact on sea creatures or habitats within that site. So a protected area doesn’t always mean forbidding all human activity, rather it’s about re-adjusting them so they fit in with the needs of marine conservation.

Let’s take a look at fisheries. It sometimes seems like most fishers are unhappy with marine protected areas. The truth is they have yet to come to grips with what it means to their fishery if they lose that important sandbank community, coral fish refuge, or top predator like the shark. But there’s also a growing force of fishers out there who recognize this and strongly believe that their livelihoods depend on healthy seas, and that marine protected areas play a vital role in achieving this. These are the fishers who are crucial to making protected areas work for both nature conservation and ensuring that we have fish on our dinner plates tomorrow.

When a marine protected area is established, it has to be followed by a management plan or else it won’t work. A plan helps set conservation actions like measures which limit the impact of a particular fisheries. ’Fisheries measures’ can include limiting fishing to specific gear types that catch intended targets instead of everything in their path, or types of gear that don’t damage sensitive marine habitats. In Denmark, the government wants to restrict fishing gears such as bottom-trawling in specific areas of their Kattegat and Samsø Belt Natura 2000 site. Bottom-trawling comes into direct contact with the sea floor and damages reefs. This doesn’t mean they want to prohibit all gear types, but it does mean that they need to have the cooperation of fishers to help them transition to other gear types which allow them to catch fish, but in a way that will still allow for the conservation of the reefs in that protected area. Other conservation measures can also be to boost wild animal populations. In the Azores for example, there is a seabird known as the Monteiro’s Storm Petrel that has been reduced to such low numbers it now only breeds in two islets. Conservation actions that have been implemented to help stabilise the population include building artificial nests to reduce competition for burrowing space with invasive and alien rabbits.

Well managed marine protected areas can have tremendous positive impact on the marine environment. They can protect critical sites such as a fish spawning grounds or seabird colonies. The plus is that they allow the marine environment to build resilience and populations of fish and other species which then can “spill-over” to adjacent non-protected areas, so for example, more fish for the fishers to catch. Conservation actions like these only help the economy and there is evidence that a 10% extension of marine protected area coverage in Europe could bring in about 2.5-3.8 billion Euros each year in food provision, leisure and recreation, nutrient recycling, and climate regulation.

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Setting aside marine protected areas only makes environmental and economic common sense, but we haven’t really seen them used to their full potential because concrete actions to manage them well are still very exceptional as most still lack basic management plans. Therefore, conservation actions are often limited to sporadic short termed, albeit very effective, projects. This needs to change so everyone ‘wins’…the fish, fishers, turtles, and beach goers who don’t mind sharing a little bit for nature’s sake.


This article appears in our July 2015 newsletter. Sign up here to read more stories like this.

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