Climate Smart Fisheries: Protected Areas or Sustainable Livelihoods?

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Adapting to climate change and reducing dependence on fossil fuels is something that the fishing industry, along with every other part of the economy is going to have to address. Some NGOs are making the argument that the solution lies with more marine protected areas. However, going all-out on MPAs as a “cure-all” for our seas risks perverse outcomes and real harm to coastal fishing communities. Dale Rodmell argues the case for a more cooperative approach that illuminates pathways to sustainable marine livelihoods that can deliver much more, and in the long run, be more adaptive to climate change.

Climate Change

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the status of climate change dispels any lingering doubts that humans are not responsible for the shifts we are already witnessing.  The report reinforces the need for society to work collectively to manage human impacts, whether directly by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, or indirectly by managing ecological impacts.

In answer to this, in the lead up to the November Glasgow COP 26 climate summit, the headline message from the government when it comes to the seas is for more Marine Protected Areas. Virtue signalling to the rest of the world, ahead of the conference it has co-opted the 30by30 campaign to reserve 30% of the world’s oceans for MPAs.

Marine Protected Areas 

The UK is already a world leader with 38% of its seas under MPAs, but despite this, there is increasing clamour both within and outside of government that it is not doing enough.  A burgeoning and well connected “rewilding” movement, criticises the UK network comprising of 372 sites as ‘paper parks’, because, predictably, the large number has created a bottleneck in progressing management measures.  Under pressure and with advocates in the heart of government, the Government has committed to further extending the network in English waters to include highly protected marine areas (HPMAs).  These intend to ban all extractive, destructive and depositional human activities, including fisheries from the start.   The Scottish Government has also committed to designate 10% of its waters under HPMAs.

Now a new case is being made for MPAs to tackle climate change by protecting so-called “blue carbon” habitat.  Although this can refer to certain types of marine habitats such as kelp forest, salt marsh or seagrass beds, the protection of seabed sediments is also in the frame.  Earlier this year a paper published in Nature, claimed, based on little more than conjecture, that carbon released by trawling disturbance to seabed sediments is greater than that generated by the whole aviation industry.

The paper failed to mention that the science on trawl disturbance and its potential to result in the transfer of carbon into the atmosphere is still embryonic.  There are several opposing processes and the net effect of these is presently highly uncertain.  Also neglected, was the fact that relative to other sources of food production wild capture fisheries have a low carbon footprint due to the low inputs needed to harvest a self-renewing resource.

Ever Decreasing Fishing Grounds

Many in the fishing industry see justifications for ever more and “tougher” MPAs as attempts to place the industry onto an ever-reducing set of reservations.  Another major concern is the sheer scale of the area to be designated for offshore wind.

The heart of the problem is that, as the government strives to allocate marine space for both purposes, it has left a major blind spot about the space needed for fisheries.  Continuing on this trajectory and ignoring its consequences risks undermining coastal fishing communities and hampering food provisioning from the seas.

“Cure-all” MPAs have Harmful Side-effects

Whether or not science subsequently proves any significant link to sediment disturbance and climate change, are more MPAs really the right tools in our increasingly crowded seas and do they instil the joint working needed to provide a path to sustainability?

When it comes to vulnerable, sensitive and rare marine habitats, MPAs can provide effective protection from the impacts of human activities.  With an already large MPA network, however, the case for going beyond this, to automatically removing human activities as a means of recovering marine ecosystems, or as a solution to climate change, diminishes.

MPAs are often hailed as an easy “cure-all”, as the only tool available to address marine environmental issues.  As a political issue, MPAs are being sold as a set solution based on the simplistic and misleading notion that if they don’t exist there is no environmental protection to effectively manage human activities.

At the heart of MPA policy, now hardening under the rewilding agenda, lies a doctrine of intolerance that pits the environment against people – it blames humans for environmental damage and sees environmental recovery as requiring their removal.

It is no surprise, therefore, that to those dependent on the sea for their livelihoods, MPAs are a contentious form of management that ignore their needs.  As currently being enacted;

  • They short circuit the usual evidence-based public policy process that examines a problem and evaluates alternative solutions, before deciding on the most appropriate course of action.
  • They are applied irrespective of whether other more targeted and efficient options for managing human-generated environmental pressures exist.
  • When imposed by government, usually in a top-down way, they are aloof from the local context in which they are introduced, setting up the basis for unintended and perverse consequences, including displacing fisheries and increasing the vulnerability of fishing communities (see insert).
  • They are indifferent to uneven distributional costs. Communities that get landed with MPAs bear the costs, while those who are not, are not directly affected (though they can be affected indirectly because of displaced activities).

MPAs, Climate Change and Livelihoods Resilience

In cases where inflexible management measures are applied to MPAs the assumed wisdom that they will improve resilience to climate change is already looking shaky.  Poorly located MPAs with ridged regulatory frameworks focussed just on the conservation status of protected features and not on the pressures affecting the fishing fleet may in fact result in the opposite and make fisheries more vulnerable to shocks, whether from markets, natural fluctuations, or climatic change.

In The Wash, for example, that has a range of MPA designations, and a heavy dependence on the shrimp beam trawl fishery, increasing restrictions are encroaching in a pincer movement that threatens to undermine the region’s fisheries resilience, limiting options for adaptation and diversification and risking a cascade of impacts as fishers are forced out of fisheries into the diminishing options that remain open.  Given that as a result of climate change distributional shifts greater than 4km a year are projected for fisheries, making livelihoods more vulnerable to shocks is not a recipe for sustainability.

A lack of climate adaptation planning for fisheries and MPAs was recently flagged as a shortfall by the government’s independent advisor, the Climate Change Committee.  Instead of blindly assuming that MPAs will offer a resilience buffer no matter what management is applied, a more sophisticated approach is needed that looks at the ability of livelihoods to adapt to changing circumstances in order to inform management actions that are in tune with livelihood needs.


Contrast with Terrestrial Protections

Perhaps what is most striking is that the government’s present approach to MPAs resembles nothing like its approach to land-based conservation.  The Environment Bill currently working its way through Parliament contains several measures to strengthen action on biodiversity, but these are based on promoting collective action with planners, landowners and interest groups and funding them to do so.  This is the stark opposite to the systematic side-lining of marine livelihoods and the cancellation of fishing rights that now accompanies measures associated with MPAs.

Start with the Users of the Seas: Stewardship

The present MPA approach to the recovery of our seas fails to appreciate that the path to sustainability is often not environmental protection per se but influencing and managing communities’ relationships with marine resources for the better.  Livelihoods need to be part of the equation, not something to be side-lined.

Measures that involve sacrificing livelihoods are hardly going to inspire those impacted on a path to improving sustainability.  When backs are pushed against the wall due to regulation that has neglected livelihood needs, it is more likely to lead to subversion and law-breaking out of necessity.  This then creates enforcement problems which in turn siphons off public resources (if there are any) to address the management failings rather than finding underlying solutions to sustainability.  Reports on the failure of MPAs due to poaching are rife.



“Livelihoods need to be part of the equation, not something to be side-lined”

Addressing environmental protection from the perspective of those living, working, and interfacing with the environment by promoting good stewardship is where public policy implementation should start.  This approach seeks to understand people’s motivations in relation to a particular environmental issue and then works with those motivations to design effective policy interventions.

Fishing communities know that a healthy marine environment is critical to the fishery resources upon which they depend.  The overwhelming majority wish to avoid negative impacts and are receptive to change and doing things better to improve environmental footprints.

Often what is missing is the know-how about how to address a particular impact and the resources to do it.  Without that know-how change is prohibitive, or too costly for the individual, but collective action to address problems and find solutions in partnership can overcome the barriers.

Government policy and regulatory frameworks need to be sensitive to this to support and guide the improvement of practices for the better in the face of environmental change, both as it is anticipated and as it takes place.

Partnership Working to Address Wildlife Bycatch

Away from the limelight of MPAs, the government has been taking steps to deliver conservation improvements using this more considered stewardship approach.  The recent establishment of the Clean Catch UK programme aims to build on a number of existing initiatives to better manage bycatch in fisheries, applying to protected, threatened, and endangered species of marine mammals, seabirds, and shark and ray species.

The approach brings together science, innovation partners, conservation organisations and the fishing industry alike to improve understanding of the extent and nature of bycatch, prioritise risks, pilot initiatives and trial methods and technologies that have at their heart partnerships with fishing communities.  Once approaches and methods have been tested, evidenced and proven locally, with the right policy incentives and institutional arrangements, this should allow what works to be rolled out more widely across different fisheries.

Early successes include a system for real-time avoidance of aggregations of spurdog in the south west and net fishery innovations and operating practices to avoid seabird bycatch in Filey Bay in close proximity to the Bempton cliffs seabird nature reserve.  Such approaches are ultimately a win-win for conservation and sustainable livelihoods, not win-lose as is so often the case with MPAs.

Seeing the Wood Instead of the Trees: The Marine Strategy

One of the opportunity costs of MPAs for ecosystem recovery and sustainable use of our seas is that they have taken up considerable government attention by focusing on the fine-scale minutia of mostly individually relatively small but now numerous areas of the sea under MPAs.    60% of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities resources have been allocated to MPAs.  That’s resources not directed to sustainable fisheries management.

The government’s latest announcement to designate several Highly Protected Marine Areas is a continuation down the same road.  It claims these HPMAs will have benefits for ecosystem recovery.  But how can they bring about significant change without there being many more of them, the reality of which would inevitably mean increasingly unpalatable side effects on marine livelihoods?

This approach has neglected the big picture.  A more sensible path to ecosystem recovery already exists in public policy.  This is the far less well known Marine Strategy, previously the Marine Strategy Framework Directive under EU law, which aims to deliver Good Environmental Status (GES) of all of our seas based on 11 descriptors.  In contrast with MPAs, the Marine Strategy provides a healthier basis for framing policy interventions as it defines GES as being compatible with sustainable use of the seas.

The UK like the EU, however, is now behind its original ambition of reaching GES by 2020.  In hindsight, this was probably too ambitious for a directive adopted in 2008 grappling with the complexities and uncertainties of the marine environment.  Early work on implementing the directive required building scientific understanding to ground any basis for action relating to the different GES descriptors.  This is still ongoing.  There are still areas of science such as over marine food webs that need to be understood before related public policy interventions can be justified.

One area where scientific progress has been made is on the GES descriptor on seabed integrity.  There are now estimates of the human pressures generated on the seabed and since 2015 there has been a government commitment to reduce them.  This poses issues for the expansion of the blue economy in our seas but also obliges the fishing industry to play its part in reducing negative impacts.

Six years have passed, however, since the government first made this commitment with so far little to show.  An earlier start on this rather than on MPAs could already have been supporting progress in fisheries to reduce environmental footprints and may have helped to ameliorate the worst mistakes that have and are accompanying the roll-out of MPAs. The new Fisheries Act and the development of fisheries management plans will provide further impetus for action.

Setting a Course

The government should now build on what it has been getting right.  On protected, threatened, and endangered species bycatch, it has set out on the right foot by facilitating partnership working.  It should draw on this to inform its approach recently announced in proposals on updating the Marine Strategy programme of measures to stimulating a reduction in fisheries seabed impacts.  There is undoubtedly a lot that can be done.  Ad-hoc efforts over the years have helped to improve fishing gears and their interaction with the seabed to reduce fuel consumption, for example.  But that is not the same as concerted action facilitated and incentivised with the support of a government with clear policy goals in mind.  If fisheries are effectively supported and stimulated to reduce impacts the benefits are likely to be far wider-ranging than MPA policy can deliver.

Ultimately an approach that works with the grain of marine livelihoods is a far more productive way to make progress in reducing environmental footprints that strikes the right balance between human use of the marine environment and its protection.  It aims to bring everyone together to work collaboratively on the joint endeavour of tackling the knotty global environmental challenges that society faces.  That has to be better than the present prevailing approach of pitting the environment against working communities.