Large, meaningless MPAs divert attention from policies that could really make a difference

Blogger picture

By anonymous

The great race to establish the world’s biggest MPA is on. You would be forgiven for thinking that this management tool – establishing vast areas where fishing of any type is prohibited – is the carefully considered best solution to a carefully described problem. You would, however, be wrong. 

Most of the largest MPAs are established by opportunity – a flagrant example of “a solution desperately seeking a problem”. When that problem has not much to do with over-fishing or destructive fishing, that inconvenient truth is shrugged away. Big MPAs grab attention and attract donors. What donor would not want to be associated with the world’s biggest MPA, especially if the designation is done so quickly and so deliciously cost-effectively?

After all, assessments take time! And harnessing the social science needed to guide planning (and to predict outcomes) takes even more. Determining what levels of which uses are appropriate to particular ecosystems sucks up considerable resources, and harnessing that information to create a systematic and strategic plan for management takes even more. Then there is the unfortunate reality check of ‘will it fly?’, which can set planners back even further as they make the adjustments needed to ensure that the resulting MPA – if that is really the best solution to the problems described – does not join the legion list of paper parks.

Who has time for all that?!

Big international NGOs, long driving the use of MPAs, inadvertently created this race. Complicit governments, keen for a big win-win, fuelled the madness. Smaller NGOs that are invested in careful planning, in working with communities or across a wide range of stakeholders, and painstakingly amassing the social and natural science base for a designation (processes that require time, negotiation, and compromise) find themselves unable to compete. And the dull work of planning authorities and regional bodies is stopped dead in its tracks as they get their budgets slashed – shame on them for not being innovative, taking risks, coming up with splashy proposals to ‘fully protect’ thousands of square kilometres from those nasty fishermen! (Never mind that some of those very same governments prop up those nasty fishermen with perverse subsidies, or that all of us have a role in perpetuating the great insatiable wave of consumer demand – not just for seafood but for food in general, farmed with feed and fertilizer drawn from the plundered seas.)

In a perfect world, perhaps, none of this would matter. We could have the humungous MPAs in all their glory, and forgive their inability to address the real and pertinent issues those ecosystems face, because we could say (as many have, even here on OpenChannels) that drawing attention to these places is inherently good, and tackling large-scale industrial and commercial fisheries at the scale they operate justifies the end. Even if there is precious little chance that the regulations can be enforced (in vast open ocean areas where fishing is going on), or are even needed (in vast ocean areas where it is not).…

In that perfect world it wouldn’t matter because we’d also have other, carefully planned MPAs, developed in response to problem-scoping and supported by a broad range of users, wholly enforceable and set up to track performance over time so that adjustments can be made. And not only that: in this perfect world, those strategic MPAs are just the starting point – one element in a rational system of looking at human needs, and impacts, and ways to meet those needs while minimizing impacts.  MPAs: nodes of special protection in a sea of planned use and broad stewardship. It does sound perfect, doesn’t it?

But, alas, our world is inexorably, maddeningly imperfect. While the huge, toothless, ill-considered MPAs get their day in the sun, and the race victors slap one another on the back for a job well done, we daren’t count the opportunity costs: growing resentment towards conservation, limited funds and public attention squandered.

Witness what has happened in the UK, where a careful planning process involving thousands of hours of stakeholder consultation, a rigourous science foundation, the best available planning tools, and difficult, drawn-out negotiation resulted in the identification of 127 Marine Conservation Areas…which the current Environment Minister blithely ignored (agreeing to a paltry 31 sites from the list, with none of them no-take). Presumably austerity dictates the need to undermine the hard work of planners – but should no one ask how wasting all the time and money spent on planning and stakeholder engagement, not to mention awareness-raising and education, is justified in times of austerity? And does no one in the coalition government understand that strategic protection of marine and coastal sites is a way to strengthen, not weaken, the nation’s economy? At the same time, we have the Right Honourable David Miliband, M.P., co-chair of the freshly launched Global Ocean Commission, pattering on about how the plundering of the high seas is folly. Convenient to look beyond one’s own waters, certainly.

We are running out of time. Our conservation attention must first and foremost be focused on places, and issues, in which we are approaching points of no return.  Proposing large and meaningless MPAs not only grabs attention, it diverts attention – away from tools, regulations, and policies that could really make a difference. I’m all for a race, but let’s have a more meaningful finish line, and stakes we can all believe in – please.

The anonymous Message in a Bottle blog allows members of the ocean planning/management community to get things off their chest and make points they ordinarily might not make in public. The writer will constantly change. We will not allow personal attacks but otherwise are open-minded. If you would like to submit an entry to Message in a Bottle, please jdavis [at] (Subject: Message%20in%20a%20Bottle) (click here).


Excellent contribution! I just wish I knew who you were so I could buy you a beer! ;) Is the focus on large no-take MPAs, mostly in remote overseas territories, also a relapse into neo-colonial fortress conservation? In the UK, David Milliband was the main instigator of what is now the Marine Act which is the legal basis for Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). Why is he so vocal on need for MPAs in High Seas yet so silent with regards to the MCZ process descending into debacle, even though he is now an opposition MP? Come to that, why is the UK government so keen to pursue a giant no-take MPA in Pitcairn (along with Chagos and other MPAs in UK overseas territories) yet so faltering and slow in its efforts to designate MPAs on the UK Continental Shelf? One problem here is studies like the recent one by the Marine Reserves Coalition, which calculate MPA coverage for each country, including overseas territories seamlessly in these calculations. Result - UK ends up looking very good due to the likes of Chagos, when reality is that its own highly pressured and impacted continental shelf has relatively low MPA coverage and that these MPA are relatively ineffective. Same with Portugal. Protect the seas in far away colonies, business as usual in the seas immediately around us?

Clearly, the issue is not whether we need large, remote MPAs or ones within coastal waters. We need both. If we’ve learned anything from the past two decades of ocean research, it’s that well designed, well managed MPAs work, and are a valuable tool for achieving our conservation goals. Anonymous seems ready to throw the baby (fish) out with the bathwater. A -- from what it sounds like, very justified -- frustration with the U.K.’s domestic MPA planning process is no reason to dismiss the very real benefits from some of our large remote MPAs. What matters is having clear objectives about what these MPAs are set up to accomplish, and ensuring that they have the management capacity to achieve these objectives over time. While not all of the new, large MPAs may have all the capacity they need today, they are working to build it – often through partnerships with NGOs and other countries. As any practitioner knows, establishing an MPA is not an end point, but a beginning. And establishing large, remote MPAs provides an opportunity to create the partnerships they need to be successful. Big Ocean, for example, is bringing together many of the world’s largest MPAs to share solutions, build capacity, and fulfill the potential of protecting some of the world’s most pristine seascapes. To find out more, visit

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment in the rushed approach currently being used to create larger and larger MPA’s by ENGO’s. It appears that these groups are completely oblivious to the collateral damage - the social or cultural strife - that is often associated with the creation of large remote MPA’s. This approach is actually undermining the credibility of properly designed MPA’s that base decisions on real science and community involvement. It is obvious to me that these ENGO’s believes the end justifies the means. Unfortunately, we don’t have to go all the way to the UK for examples of large remote MPA’s being created solely on the agendas of ENGO’s and politicians. Right here at home, the US has the perfect example with the designation of the 2009 Pacific Monuments – in particular, the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument located in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The Northern Mariana Islands has a population of less than 50,000 US citizens who do not vote in Presidential elections. In addition, during the time of the 2008 Marianas monument campaign (sponsored by the Pew Environmental Group) the CNMI had no official representation in Congress. From a political mainland perspective, siting a large remote marine monument in the Mariana Islands was like picking low hanging fruit. The decision on a Mariana Island monument was a done deal long before Pew and the White House pretended they were seriously evaluating other potential marine monument areas. Other monument areas along the US mainland coastline (i.e., Gulf of Mexico and East Coast) were quickly dropped once State Congressmen and Senators spoke out vocally against the proposals. In contrast, when the Governor and Legislature jointed rejected the Pew proposal for a large remote MPA in the CNMI EEZ, their position was ignored. Instead, Pew orchestrated and funded a controversial re-education program (my words) starting early 2008 to convince CNMI residents to support conversion of approximately 1/3 of the entire EEZ into (basically) a no-take MPA. Pew worked to create the illusion of widespread grassroots support for their monument proposal. Using the media, they directed public pressure on our elected leaders in an attempt to bring them around to their way of thinking. In other words - conservation by manipulation and mob rule. What we learned about Pew during 2008 was that they are interested in only one thing - to meet their own conservation objectives no matter what the ethical or financial costs. An excellent example of this attitude can be found in a quote attributed to Mr. Joshua S. Reichert (Pew Charitable Trusts) “I don’t want someone who knows the facts, or can articulate them persuasively; I want someone who wants to win and knows how.” [Citation: “The Price of Doing Business” by B. Cohen (Foundation Watch; CRC July 2006)] As evidence, the Pew monument campaign was an environmental travesty: deceptive claims, misrepresentation of facts, the parading of children and young adults in front of media (and elected leaders) parroting what the Pew faithful told then, and public personal attacks on those who dared have a different opinion. They even altered (and then publicized) a private third-party e-mail to make it appear as if the author was supporting all their campaign claims. Pew underestimated the people of the CNMI and their monument proposal was eventually outright rejected by most of our elected leaders, indigenous community members, and later by the White House. However, when the White House realized the Pew campaign was faltering in the Marianas and the administration’s remaining time in office was getting short (October 2008) they sent out a high-ranking envoy in a last minute push to convince the CNMI to support a marine monument. Flying in on a military helicopter from Guam, the White House representative was welcomed by members of the Carolinian community protesting the monument just outside the airport. In order to win support for a monument, the emissary made very specific promises to the Governor, Speaker of the House, and Senate President. Unfortunately, they were desperate promises from an official who was ordered to deliver a ‘Blue Legacy’ to the President. Even though it is four years later, most of these promises have yet to be fulfilled. In the end, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument was nothing more than an exercise in awarding a "Blue Legacy" to an outgoing President with a poor environmental record. The monument serves as a military playground for the ongoing Marianas military buildup and further establishes formal US presence (in the face of Asian expansion efforts) in the Western Pacific. And certainly not least, the monument advanced Pew’s anti-fishing agenda. It is my opinion that science and conservation had nothing to do with creating the Mariana Trench Monument – it was all about US mainland politics and power. I believe there will be a significant backlash from the current approach of establishing large remote MPA’s. The Chagossians are continuing their legal battles in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (UN), while the Australians formed a new (?) political party to oppose the extreme environmentalists that are supported by the Pew Environment Group. Closer to home, there is talk questioning the legal authority of the Antiquities Act in designating marine monuments further than 3-nm (from coastlines) for purposes of managing fisheries. Marine monuments have absolutely nothing in common with the stated purpose(s) of the Antiquities Act, unfortunately it will take court action to clarify whether these monumental actions are truly legal. It’s not only the world’s fishing communities that are upset with this arrogant behavior. Effected indigenous people are also quite fed-up with the undue influence that agenda-driven ENGO’s have on governmental decision making processes. As the first commenter noted – this is fortress conservation at its worst. Building successful partnerships for large remote MPA’s must be initiated from the very beginning of the process - not after the MPA’s are designated. The damage done in the Marianas in 2008 using the Antiquities Act (and subsequent federal government actions) will negatively affect future partnerships. Even four years after the designation, the monument campaign remains a sore subject for many in the Mariana Islands. John Gourley Marianas Conservation Northern Mariana Islands, USA

The original poster has hit the nail right on the head and definitely deserves a beer. But John Gourley goes even further into the reasons why the ‘research” surrounding the “need” for large no take zones in MPAs is badly tainted. Gourley relays his own experiences in the Marianas where he saw first hand how ENGO’s, lead by the Pew Charitable Trust, driven by their own anti fishing agendas attempted to tread all over local communities (who have far better records for sustainability and conservation than big oil funded trusts like Pew ever will). Gourley knows what the real story is. Then we have people like Charles Shepphard confirming, by not declaring his interests, how they have played a role in tainting the science of this issue further by their advocacy for large MPAs (Shepphard is the editor of the Journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, but is also a member of the Chagos Conservation Trust , who worked with Pew money to lobby for establishment of the Chagos MPA). It is no coincidence that many pro-large MPA papers have been published in Marine Pollution Bulletin in recent times, including a recent one on large scale marine conservation which links directly back to this blog article by the original poster (which is why he/she deserves that beer!). Charles Shepphard is not so bold as to put his name on the author list of this latest advocacy paper, but I’m sure he had a role in the review process to make sure it was published in his journal, and his wife is an author anyway, so it still counts. And in the washup, it was proven by Wikileaks that the declaration of the Chagos MPA was classic fortress conservation (as aptly articulated by Desanto et al (2010). Marine Policy 35: 258-260) in that cables leaked from the US Embassy in late 2010 demonstrated that the Chagos MPA was established primarily for military purposes to restrict access and reduce the chances of former native Chagossians being able to return to the region after they were forcibly removed to make way for the military base In Australia we saw similar manipulation of the facts by ENGOs, lead by Pew, who true to form stood by their motto of win at any cost. Pew were found to be altering scientific documents, and paying for “research” that supported their agenda, including a paper that purported a need to lock up “50% of the south west of the Australian EEZ” into No Take Zones, Unfortunately, the 50% number was an input to the model, not an output, but that did not stop Pew colluding with the greens party (who held the balance of power at that time with the federal Labor Government) to get the 50% figure incorporated into the government MPA planning process (as well as the ensuing press releases). A Senate Inquiry was needed to draw attention to the problem . Similar not so subtle tactics were used to try to justify Pews Global Ocean Legacy’s stated position to declare 100% of the Coral Sea (1 million km2 of ocean and coral islands) closed to all fishing in the worlds largest no take MPA. When recreational fishing groups met with Pew to discuss why the no fishing closure should include the historic, very well managed, and entirely sustainable catch and release marlin fishery out of Cairns, they were stonewalled. Of course there was no science to support destruction of a sustainable catch and release fishery, only the draconian orders from Pew administration in the USA to get the no fishing zones “as big as possible”. And damn the collateral damage which amounts to the lives, livelihoods and lifestyles of many thousands, if not millions of actual stakeholders. The socio political manipulation of the science, media and governments by powerful ENGO lobby groups is why the science behind large MPAs is tainted. Indeed, in recent times here in Australia the dislike for extremist marine conservation policy was a major reason why the Liberal party smashed the Labor/greens alliance in the last Federal election, especially in coastal seats. The Liberals knew what was happening with Pew manipulating the former Government, and they promised to fix up the mess if they got into office by reviewing the whole sorry affair that amounted to the marine bioregional planning process in Australia as run by the Labor/Greens government. So in effect, the idealogically driven bully tactics by Pew may have effectively put the marine planning process in Australia back by a decade, or more. As the OP will agree, a MPA will not protect biodiversity, or anything else for that matter, if it is poorly designed, fails to address the main threatening processes that damage aquatic ecosystems, and fails to be accepted by stakeholders. Just because they are big, doesn’t mean they are any good.

PS, my bad, C Shepphard was listed in the middle of the authors for the recent Mar. Pol. Bull. paper, but his interests in relation to membership of Chagos Conservation Trust are not declared at the end of the paper. Indeed, none of the interests or funding sources of the authors of that paper are declared , which fuels my suspicions that it is simply another MPA advocacy paper that has gotten through review and into the scientific literature with no questions asked. Is the system broken ?

here is what happens when extremist MPA policy , as has recently occurred in Australia, meets the democratic process. A review was sorely needed, based on the issues I raised above. As I said, extremist policy has probably put the MPA process back about a decade in Australia, dividing communities and alienating stakeholders is not the way to go about these things.

Here is more fallout from the extremist MPA policy driven by ENGO's in Australia, when it met the democratic process and

Looks like the new government in Ausralia has recognised all of the boundaries of the new MPAs' designed by the previous government, but will be redrafting the management plans afer scientific review. So those who measure MPA success by % of area under MPA management can rejoice. Senator Boswell seems to have taken time to single out the extremist activities of the environmental NGO Pew Charitable Trust as one of the reasons why they review is taking place..

Jones (first commentator) has a very good point about the UK turning its back on its own home waters of course. But that simply makes another point - we simply cannot seem to do it in home waters - in this country or many others. People stop such protective measures, again and again, as is happening with UK coastal reserves now. But the ocean as a whole needs it somewhere, so you surely should do it where you can. Naive people continue to make the tired point (as here) that we need to 'manage the oceans'. But people can't manage oceans - people can only significantly manage people, and people's interactions with it 'Managing' oceans, or species, or ecosystems, is pure hubris! King Canute was the first person who thought he could, now followed by so many 'coastal managers', 'coral reef managers' and the like! Indeed, there is a whole industry based on the mistaken belief (in the sense I mean here) that ecosystems can be managed. Hence... you simply cannot do it very well, or at all, where there are lots of people. So, do it where you possibly can,surely, in places worth doing it in, while they still exist. And if spared, such places then can and do 'manage' (or sustain), themselves. and do so very much better than any recorded attempt by human managers to repair damaged systems. Successes through our 'management' have been paltry in comparison - of course we should not stop trying, but I agree with the second in this string: dont throw the baby out with the bathwater.

King Canute's stunt on the beach in 1028 is often mis-represented, as it as widely recognised by historians as being intended to prove to his courtiers that the King was not omnipotent and that it was God who controlled the tides, not the king. In a similar fashion, I do not think that any of the discussants in this blog on large MPAs is really 'niave' and 'hubristic' enough to make the 'tired' point that MPA managers are actually trying to manage ocean ecosystems in themselves, i.e. to intervene in ecosystem structures and processes in any way other than controlling human uses.Charles Sheppard has misrepresented their arguments in the same manner that he misrepresents the story of King Canute.

On the original topic of this thread, I would also like to buy the first poster a beer. It's not easy to stick your neck out on this topic, but it's necessary... otherwise we risk missing the whole point, undermining the conservation objectives these enormous areas are being designated to achieve, while simultaneously alienating stakeholders and furthering opposition to MPAs. I have a paper that just came out in the Journal of Environmental Management on "Missing MPA targets: how the push for quantity over quality undermines sustainability and social justice", available here:

MEDIA RELEASE 17 December 2013 Federal Coalition delivers on election promise to fishers, industry, regional communities and most importantly the marine environment The Australian Marine Alliance (AMA) today welcomed the decision by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt to seek the Governor General to re-proclaim new Commonwealth marine reserves, invalidating Labor's management plans and exclusion zones which would have come into effect in July 2014. Mr Logan, “This is an outstanding outcome for the marine environment, regional Australia and thousands of sustainable fishing businesses and allied SMEs in the tourism, manufacturing, boating, outboard engine and retail sectors, who rely on the marine environment for their livelihood.” The AMA has been working with the Federal Coalition for 6 years to address glaring policy concerns with the Marine Bio-Regional Planning Process (MBPP) evidenced under Labor. The AMA secured the commitment to suspend the MBPP, if elected, from the now Prime Minister on 24 August 2012. Mr Logan continued, “The first thing to note is that the Federal Coalition can be trusted to deliver on what they say they will do. “Secondly, Labor and the Green’s policy of arbitrarily locking up large areas of marine environment without an ounce of credible science is dead and buried. USA based environmental NGO’s and their billion dollar balance sheets can also take their bat and ball and go home because their solution has failed - principally because they failed to deliver the necessary protection the marine environment deserved.” The key issues surrounding this decision are: o The response from Labor’s Mark Butler and key environmental groups to the decision is wrong. The Coalition’s decision takes the MBPP back to its credible scientific roots, where IUCN zones and relevant management plans were implemented seamlessly, with industry and community support. o Under the leadership of Tony Burke the entire MBPP was plagued by grubby back room deals and something like 12 versions of maps that most people never viewed. The argument of course is that the Labor process had more to do with inner city Green preference deals, than credible science driven marine and environmental policy. o The MBPP under Labor was not supported by a majority of the Australian public as suggested by environmental NGOs (ENGOs). In fact it was proven in Senate Estimates on 22 May 2012 that out of 487,434 submissions tabled by ENGOs, in-excess of 94% were computer generated campaign submissions from overseas – most likely from the USA. o Under Labor and the Greens millions of dollars of investment and thousands of regional jobs were on the verge of being lost without an ounce of thought. In fact Labor and the Greens dismissed an independent socio-economic assessment that calculated the Cairns regional economy would lose over $1BN in economic activity, due to the Labor / Green marine park approach. o Under Labor and the Greens some fishing businesses were locked out of 85% of their fishing grounds, placing millions of dollars of investment and regional jobs in jeopardy, without a single letter or phone call from Canberra. o Tony Burke’s whirl-wind consultation process last year was more aligned to ‘speed dating’ than a genuine attempt to understand how Government decisions would affect businesses, communities and families around Coastal Australia. o Under Labor and the Greens compensation for those wishing to exit the sector was grossly inadequate with businesses worth 5 million dollars, likely to receive only $60,000. o In 6 years fighting this issue we have not met a single scientist under Labor’s leadership from the Bureau of Rural Science (BRS) or the Federal Department of Environment to substantiate the largest marine reserve network in history - 3.5M sq’kms of arbitrary marine closures. Mr Logan concluded, “In summary, whilst fishing continues as normal the key now will be to dovetail fisheries management and environmental outcomes with regional policy objectives. “Labor’s zones and boundaries don’t make sense and the policy methodology did not provide the necessary protection the marine environment deserves. “The decision by the Abbott Federal Government will now subject the entire process to strong, robust and independent scientific review. “Modern fishing businesses are pivotal to our regional fabric. Many are vertically integrated, young, and highly professional, providing skills and significant economic activity to towns where it is needed most. “Why ENGOs ignore the fact that we have some of the most advanced sustainable fishing practices of any developed country, is a question every donor to their cause must ask. “To the contrary the Federal Coalition recognises that the marine environment does not benefit when wedge politics and horse trading dictate policy discourse. “The Federal Coalition will now work with the custodians of the marine environment to effectively manage the resource, thereby delivering a far greater environmental benefit than the ENGOs themselves seek,” ended Mr Logan.

Add new comment

Sign-in with your OpenChannels Member Account and sign-up for email notifications of new blogs. Simply visit any blog post and click the "Subscribe to updates of new content of this type" link just above the comments section.