MPA Profile: Trying to Balance Conservation and Sustainable Development in Russia's Largest MPA

MPA News

Within the extensive Russian system of protected areas is a network of strictly protected nature reserves, called zapovedniks (zap-o-VED-niks). Dating back to 1916 when the first zapovednik was designated, this network now has 100 terrestrial and marine sites, stretching from the Black Sea to the Bering Sea. Of these, the most easterly is off the coast of Kamchatka: the Komandorsky Zapovednik, two mountainous islands surrounded by a 30-mile no-take zone. With 34,633 km2 of marine area, it is Russia's largest MPA.

Designated in 1993, the Komandorsky Zapovednik is home to a diversity of marine mammals, birds, and commercially valuable fish species, as well as a population of about 800 people on the islands. Despite regulations that restrict fishing in the reserve to certain areas and to indigenous residents only, poaching by commercial fishermen (both Russian and foreign) has become common. Poverty among the residents is leading some to assist the illegal activity.

A key to success in managing the site lies in balancing conservation and the sustainable development of the local population. Although management plans exist to pursue that balance, broad federal budget cuts and other factors have hampered their implementation. Below, MPA News offers a brief profile of the challenges and opportunities facing Komandorsky Zapovednik, through the eyes of those trying to strengthen the reserve.

Developing legal sources of income

Konstantin Zgurovsky, a biologist with World Wildlife Fund-Russia (WWF-Russia), says helping the indigenous residents of the Komandorsky (or "Commander") Islands is essential to protecting the reserve. "One of the main threats to the reserve is internal: the high level of unemployment and, due to that, the involvement of local people in poaching," he says. "The way out is cooperation with local communities in finding legal sources of income."

The concept of considering local needs in zapovednik management is relatively new to Russia. Historically, these protected areas have been managed as strictly protected research reserves - field laboratories for the nation's scientists. Only recently has the government broadened the role of these sites to be more inclusive of the general public. One of the results of this change was Russia's successful nomination in 2002 of the Komandorsky Islands as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Consistent with UNESCO guidelines, the designation carried a primary goal of improving the socioeconomic conditions of the local residents while developing ecologically sound forms of natural resource use. Zoning of the reserve would feature a core, highly protected area and a surrounding, multiple-use buffer zone, also consistent with other biosphere reserves worldwide.

Implementation of these plans by the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, responsible for overseeing the Komandorsky Islands, is off to a weak start. The zapovednik was actually more involved with socioeconomic improvement programs in the 1990s, when it helped install wind turbines on the islands for electricity; now it is no longer directly involved in such programs. In addition, the Ministry of Natural Resources has not yet put in place much of the multiple-use buffer zone, intended to reach 12 miles from shore. Most of the reserve remains no-take.

Zgurovsky blames the poor implementation on a range of factors, including low government prioritization for marine biodiversity conservation in general, made worse by budget cuts. He would like to see involvement of the local population in small-scale processing of natural resources, like a small kelp-processing facility that opened in the islands in 2002, financed by a mainland Russian company. When Zgurovsky and other WWF-Russia personnel visited the reserve in mid-2003, a local fisheries inspector reported that poaching had dropped off since arrival of the processing operation. The business had created jobs, which, said the inspector, had reduced the need to poach.

Sustainable development not the only answer

Jobs for local residents will not end all threats to the Komandorsky Islands. Illegal fishing by outsiders, for example, is likely to continue as long as enforcement of the no-take zone remains inadequate. Zgurovsky points out that the satellite-based vessel monitoring system used for Russian fisheries management in the region has a loophole allowing vessels to turn off their transmitters for up to 10 days at a time, with the effect of enabling boats to fish in no-take areas without the system detecting their location. Fisheries management has also been lax about forbidding the use of black-market software programmable to give false coordinates for a vessel.

WWF-Russia is lobbying the government to address these problems, and is trying to strengthen on-site enforcement. The NGO has donated communications and radio equipment to the reserve and sponsored workshops for rangers and fisheries inspectors on their use. Zgurovsky would like to help establish an inter-agency patrol system for the Komandorsky Islands, with a portion of any collected penalties being retained by the reserve's management.

Vsyevolod Stepanitsky, former deputy director of Russia's Department of Strictly Protected Nature Areas within the Ministry of Natural Resources, agrees on the need for inter-agency cooperation on enforcement. (Stepanitsky was deputy director until early 2004, when the Russian government dissolved his department as part of a broad governmental restructuring effort. The government has not yet announced its plan to replace the department, but the zapovedniks remain staffed in the meantime.) Stepanitsky says protection of Komandorsky should involve the federal border service of the Russian Federation, which is equipped with speedboats, planes, and helicopters for combating illegal fishing elsewhere in the nation.

Enforcement is not the only challenge facing the zapovednik, says Stepanitsky. The chronic funding shortage, which affects all aspects of Komandorsky management, needs to be addressed. "It is very important for the zapovednik to develop partnerships with scientific and conservation organizations in the US," he says. Support from such organizations in the form of money or equipment is the best type of direct assistance, he says, although he adds that Russian customs procedures can delay donations of equipment for months in some cases. He suggests that indirect support, such as through staff exchanges with US parks and refuges, could provide effective training opportunities for Komandorsky personnel. Such exchanges could also build the potential for greater connections among conservation efforts in the two nations. "We think prospects for developing an international transboundary protected area - that would include several refuges in the Aleutian Islands (US) as well as our Komandorsky Zapovednik - are very real," says Stepanitsky. He points out that the Ministry of Natural Resources appointed a new manager for the reserve this year who is fluent in English and has professional contacts with conservationists and scientists in the US - important elements for building an international partnership.

The reserve faces the additional challenge of oil pollution. Margaret Williams, editor of Russian Conservation News, a magazine published by World Wildlife Fund-US, cites the growth of offshore petroleum exploration in the region, and the need for management to put a spill-response system in place. "This is an urgent priority," she says. She describes a 2003 incident in which a container ship passing nearby lost a 20-ton container filled with a toxic chemical used in construction. The container, which grounded near a fur seal rookery in the reserve, ended up leaking most of its contents during improvised removal attempts by locals. Although this was not an oil spill, it illustrated the danger associated with having no coordinated response from government authorities. "Luckily it ended fairly well," says Williams, noting limited deaths of wildlife. "But that was only luck."

For more information

Konstantin Zgurovsky, WWF-Russia, Far-East Branch, Marine Program, 68 Pologaya Street, Vladivostok, 690600, Russia. Tel: +7 4232 406651; E-mail: kzgurovsky [at] wwfrfe.ru

Margaret Williams, Russian Conservation News, c/o WWF-USA, 1250 24th St., NW, Washington, DC 20037, USA. Tel: +1 202 778 9573; E-mail: margaret.williams [at] wwfus.org