Marine conservation has gotten a lot of press lately with President Obama’s plan to extend Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the release of a new study on seafood fraud, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s pledge to support ocean conservation (Hey Leo, let me know if you are looking for a marine scientist partner!). Here are a few things everyone should know about marine conservation to keep up with the discussions:
1. What is a Marine Protected Area?
A marine protected area, or MPA, is a region of the ocean where human activities are limited or regulated. There are different levels of restrictions ranging from sustainable use or protection of only certain species, to “No-Take-Zones” where all forms of exploitation are prohibited. MPAs can be large patches of protected waters or a system of smaller protected areas.
2. What are the Benefits of MPA’s?
The main idea behind MPAs is similar to that of nature reserves on land. We can try to preserve sections of natural habitat by limiting human use in those areas. However, MPAs have a few unique aspects because of the connectivity of the ocean. When talking about MPAs, you might hear the term: “spill-over effect.” This is the idea that as fish populations recover and prosper within the protected area, fish will “spill-over” to outside of the MPA where fishermen can benefit from this increase in fish. You might also hear MPAs being compared to savings accounts. As we continue to over-use the ocean’s resources outside of MPAs, these protected areas can serve as “savings accounts” of certain marine organisms that could potentially replenish exploited areas. Fish and other organisms could move outside of the MPA as in the spill-over effect, but the ones remaining inside the MPA can release larvae that can be transported by ocean currents, like dandelion seeds flying away in the breeze, and settle in surrounding habitats. So, although MPAs do limit human use in certain areas, they can also provide long-term benefits to those who depend on marine resources. I really liked the quote from Palau’s president in regards to the Pacific nation’s new MPA: “We are not anti-fishing, we are pro-fishing sustainably.”
3. What are the Limitations of MPA’s?
MPAs can benefit many marine species, but they do have some limitations. The efficacy of MPAs is often limited by a lack of enforcement. Unfortunately, many of the nations where MPAs are located only have a few boats or rangers available to patrol marine reserves. MPAs often cover vary large areas and borders are difficult to define in the ocean. However, appropriate enforcement is essential for MPAs to have any impact on marine ecosystems. Marine protected are also not perfect Band-Aids for marine conservation. Coral reefs are facing other serious threats like ocean acidification and warmer ocean temperatures. As CO2 is released into the atmosphere, some of it dissolves in the ocean. This lowers the ocean’s pH and can dissolve the shells and hard structures of marine organisms. Temperature stress is also very detrimental to coral reefs as it breaks down of the partnership between coral animals and the small plant organisms called zooxanthellae that they depend on for food.
4. What is Seafood Fraud?
Seafood fraud is where seafood is sold as something other than it actually is. This can mean fish is being sold as if it was harvested from a sustainable fishery when it is actually harvested illegally or unsustainably. Some fish is sold as wild-caught when it is actually from a fish farm. Some fish are even being sold as completely different species than what they actually are. Check out a previous post from one of my undergraduate students for more information about seafood fraud.
5. How Does Seafood Fraud Affect You?
Seafood fraud is unfortunately more common than most people are aware of. A recent study found that between 20-32% of seafood imported to the United States is actually being caught illegally in other countries. That means that our seafood appetite is unintentionally supporting unsustainable and ecologically-detrimental fishing practices around the world. A study by Oceana found that about one third of seafood in the US was mislabeled as something that is wasn’t. When seafood is mislabeled, you are not only paying for a quality of fish that you are not receiving, but you can actually be eating fish that is bad for your health or high in mercury. Check out this interactive map by Oceana to find out how prevalent seafood fraud is where you live.