Environmental sustainability was one of the top concerns at the mid-November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, as shown by the potentially groundbreaking climate agreement reached between the United States and China. The fate of the world’s oceans, from issues ranging from climate change to overfishing, was also in the spotlight, being mentioned by Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryIran’s nuclear deal just the tip of the iceberg for Trump Trump needs to stand firm on immigration, 'religious-test' insticts Budowsky: Ellison, Kerry to DNC? MORE as one of many challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region. Unfortunately, the solutions we’re focusing on are not enough to solve the problems that our marine environments face.
The APEC summit is the most recent instance in which the US has touted the expansion of marine preserves as a tonic for global overfishing, especially as climate change and ocean acidification threaten to radically alter our ocean ecosystems. This past September, the Administration created the largest marine reserve in the world when it expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, moving this strategy to the forefront of our international ocean policy. Secretary Kerry hailed this development as “critical” at the summit, going on to note, “most of the fisheries of the world are overfished.”
And more importantly, these Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) aren’t sufficient to solve some of the most pressing issues affecting our oceans, despite our nation’s recent enthusiasm for promoting them.
MPAs are certainly very useful for certain conservation goals. They can protect vulnerable habitats like coral reefs as well as benefit some species of fish that make those habitats their home. But their widespread adoption presents several challenges and raises several concerns. The biggest issue is that—especially in the developing world—people still need to fish. It’s a valuable source of employment, and an even more valuable source of protein. The FAO estimated that in 2011, 2.3 billion people relied on fish as a significant source of animal protein. A shift from seafood to other, land-based food sources like meat and agriculture may actually increase greenhouse emissions and pollution, making these threats to our oceans even worse.
MPAs are also a much more limited tool than currently acknowledged. They do little to help certain stocks of highly migratory fish, like tuna, which don’t remain in any closed area long enough to reap much of the benefits. Even stocks that stay in one place might not benefit for long. With climate change putting increasing pressure on stocks to migrate from their traditional territories to cooler waters, the spatial limitations of an MPA are a poor fit for the habitat changes that are likely to occur. Similarly, MPAs provide little protection against the increasingly prominent effects of ocean acidification. Effectively dealing with these growing climate problems is going to require a long-term strategy that is simply outside the reach of fisheries management.
Fishing isn't likely to go away anytime soon, and a global conservation strategy that’s too reliant on keeping fishermen out of an ever-expanding set of ocean reserves has some obvious political, economic, and practical limits. Adopting more sustainable management measures for some of the world’s largest fisheries, many of them in APEC member countries, would likely have a much greater impact.
So what’s the best way to address the problem of overfishing and prepare for climate change? We need to promote a combination of strategies at the international level that have worked so well in some of the world’s best managed fisheries, such as New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, and here in the United States. When effectively implemented, measures like limiting the size of fish that can be caught, controlling how much fish is caught, and restricting the ways in which fish can be caught all produce effects similar to those seen in successful MPAs. They also have the benefit of sustaining fishing economies and maintaining fish as a viable source of food.
No conservation measures, whether on climate, or pollution, or overfishing, can be sustainable in the long-term unless they confront economic and political realities. Promoting better fishing, rather than simply displacing or banning it all together, is far more likely to win support among the developing world, which can’t afford to sacrifice a critical way of life.
Hilborn is professor of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington and the author of Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know by Oxford University Press. Rothschild is dean emeritus of the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology. Cadrin is the immediate past president of the American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists. Lassen is the founder and president of Ocean Trust.