Marine protected areas not holding up

Andrew Robinson
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A Memorial University geography professor who is part of an international group of researchers says we need to rethink how marine protected areas (MPA) worldwide serve the interests of conservation.

Memorial University geography professor Rodolphe Devillers is the lead author for a study involving an international group of researchers and says marine protected areas do not serve conservation as well as one might hope. This image shows deep sea corals and sponges caught in a bottom trawl on a commercial fishing vessel off northern Labrador in May 2007.
— Submitted photo

“The Canadians and the people in Newfoundland, we have to be open to this,” said Rodolphe Devillers, lead author for the study undertaken by those researchers. “It’s either we want to make the sacrifices safe in terms of access to parts of the water, or then we have to accept that we’re not going to make no difference to conservation and that fish is slowly going to disappear.”

Approximately three per cent of the world’s oceans have marine protection. In Canada, Devillers said that figure is at one per cent, but there is mounting international pressure to bring that number up to 10 per cent both globally and in Canada.

When land is protected by park status, it is virtually unheard of for concessions to permit resource development.

However, that’s not always the case for MPAs, according to Devillers.

“In parks, you cannot have a mining company come in and open a mine that excavates the ground. But in the ocean, most parks allow fishing.”

The study found MPAs are often placed in areas that surround ocean-related activity, be it fishing or oil and gas development. Devillers said that appears to also be the case in Canada.

“The way DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) deals with that is very much like what we say in our paper happens everywhere.”

Gilbert Bay in Newfoundland is an MPA, but scallop dredging is permitted. Fishing also takes place in the Great Barrier Reef, known to be the world’s largest coral reef system. Devillers said most of the protection measures in place for the Great Barrier Reef are specific to coral reef areas.

Trawling in the Great Barrier Reef happens in other areas that are often muddy. However, Devillers said a full understanding of marine life in those areas is still lacking.

Non-governmental organizations and industry representatives take part in consultations to inform the decision-making process for MPAs, but Devillers finds in Canada there is a lack of transparency about how those decisions are ultimately made.

Devillers sees a need to balance the interests of various marine industries with groups that may more aggressively push for conservation measures.

“What we think is, this balance is not very balanced. It’s often very biased towards industry interests, and one reason is that not protecting ecosystems has a much lower impact on the politics than cutting significantly into the economy. It’s a tricky balance.”

With that in mind, Devillers would like governments to make the process for designating MPAs more transparent. He said the reason one area is selected over another is often left unclear once a decision is made.

As an example, a MPA is in the process of being set up off the coast of Newfoundland for the Laurentian Channel. According to Devillers, science does not strongly support the need to create a MPA there.

“This area was mostly supported for economic reasons because compared to others, it wasn’t really impacting the fishing industry too much,” he said. “Those arguments are things (scientists) know, but nobody else knows.”

As a scientist working for a Canadian university, Devillers finds it difficult to get data from the federal government.

“They don’t want scientists looking into what they are doing, which is not something that’s common in every part of the world ... There’s this black box around what DFO is doing, which from our perspective in terms of science is not something we wish for.”



Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Laurentian Channel

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, Great Barrier Reef Gilbert Bay

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Recent comments

  • Jaime R. Alvarado-Bremer
    March 04, 2014 - 12:10

    Care has to be taken not to take Mr. Devillers' statement as applicable to all MPAs around the world. While these statements may hold true to Canada, we need to be careful not to make extrapolations from parks (terrestrial) to marine reserves, and making the equivalency of mining to fishing, is irresponsible.

  • W McLean
    March 03, 2014 - 17:36

    Gilbert Bay is in Labrador, not Newfoundland.

  • unjustified
    March 03, 2014 - 11:07

    The decision making process for creating national parks has undergone the same process - arctic parks (i.e. nahanni) are springing up because they're viewed as empty and barren, and easy to protect. Terra Nova paid for a highway, but its boundaries are ecologically arbitrary. We struggle to put MPA's in major shipping lanes or fishing areas for the same reason we dont have a national park in the middle of Toronto. There are large competing interests that exclusionary protection will not accomodate. Also, land-boundary designations historically have major flaws when applied to marine areas. I agree with the need to address these issues now, before more MPAs are inevitably designated, but we need to first rethink "protection" and exclusion as a means for maintaining biodiversity and marine habitats.