- A new study of the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean found that marine protected areas (MPAs) are not only beneficial for conservation but can also lift up the socioeconomic status of the local and Indigenous communities that live near them.
- Led by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the study used data from the Healthy Reef Initiative and USAID to analyze social and economic factors like income, food security and the rates of stunted growth connected to chronic malnutrition in children.
- One reason that MPAs benefit local and Indigenous communities is that no-take zones reach their carrying capacity as fish populations grow and recover, creating “spillover” into waters without fishing restrictions.
Less than 3% of the world’s oceans are currently protected. Conservationists say that figure needs to hit 30% to prevent major diversity loss and climate change. But marine conservation can be tricky: local and Indigenous communities often rely on fishing for their livelihood, and blocking off certain areas of the water with no-take zones can sometimes be controversial.
But a new study, which focused on the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean, found that well-enforced marine protected areas (MPAs) are not only beneficial for conservation but can also lift up the socioeconomic status of the local and Indigenous communities that live near them.
There are “co-benefits for fish and people associated with MPAs,” the study said, “highlighting the potential value of MPAs in achieving multiple sustainable development goals.”
Led by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the study used USAID Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) data to analyze social and economic factors like income, food security and the rates of stunted growth connected to chronic malnutrition in children. It also pulled data from the Healthy Reef Initiative to compare the biomass of fish populations in protected areas.
The results showed that there’s a correlation between well-enforced, highly protected MPAs in the Mesoamerican Reef and the long-term social and economic well-being of local communities. Relative household income was 33% higher in communities near the best-protected MPAs, compared to communities that weren’t near one. Young children living near MPAs were also half as likely to experience stunted growth.
One reason for these benefits is that no-take zones reach their carrying capacity as fish populations grow and recover, creating “spillover” into areas without fishing restrictions, thereby improving commercial opportunities for locals in that area. The amount of time it takes for spillover to happen varies from species to species, but is usually around five years or more.
The study found that MPAs with the highest protections averaged 27% more fish biomass than open-access zones without restrictions. Fish with high commercial value tended to have 35% more biomass.
“There’s more successful fishing activity due to the spillover effect, which then helps increase incomes and food security of local people,” co-author Steven Canty, coordinator of the marine conservation program at the Smithsonian, told Mongabay.
But creating no-take zones and other protections in the water can be a sensitive subject for communities that rely on fishing for sustenance or livelihood. Some areas in the study saw their traditional grounds included within MPAs, with limited or no consultation, resulting in low levels of compliance. Previous studies have found that residents sometimes perceive MPAs as undermining their access to ancestral fishing areas, with alternative livelihoods in tourism offering “negligible benefits.”
It’s important to have good communication with communities when developing marine conservation projects, the study’s authors said. It’s also important that they have a leadership role when possible, as they often know what’s best for the area and their own needs.
“In poorly managed MPAs, where there’s a lack of governance, no surveillance nor management, then the communities might get a misconception of the MPA because they might think it’s not working,” said Ana Giró, the Guatemalan coordinator for the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative, who wasn’t involved in the study. “In marine ecosystems, more specifically coral reefs, what we are seeing is that fully protected MPAs is what’s working best to have healthier reefs and bringing back commercial fish biomass.”
The study could pave the way for future research on the social and economic impact of MPAs, since it didn’t look at which specific groups are benefiting from them. Narrowing in on how primary fishing households and people working in ecotourism benefit from MPAs could reveal even more about the relationship between communities and conservation.
Limitations in the DHS data used in the study also left some questions about long-term impacts unanswered, such as whether local income increased over time following the creation of an MPA.
More research could also be done to square this study with others that yielded mixed results in locally managed marine areas. A study published this year of Fijian communities found that locals didn’t see improved wealth or food security from their marine project.
“There is still a lot that we don’t know about the interaction between marine protected areas, fisheries and human well-being,” said Nathan Bennett, global oceans lead scientist at WWF. “How do marine protected areas affect other aspects of human well-being? What factors increase positive outcomes? How effective are coastal, community-led marine protected areas?”
Banner image: A fisherman in Belize. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
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Nowakowski, A. J., Canty, S. W., Bennett, N. J., Cox, C. E., Valdivia, A., Deichmann, J. L., … McField, M. (2023). Co-benefits of marine protected areas for nature and people. Nature Sustainability. doi:10.1038/s41893-023-01150-4
Di Lorenzo, M., Guidetti, P., Di Franco, A., Calò, A., & Claudet, J. (2020). Assessing spillover from marine protected areas and its drivers: A meta‐analytical approach. Fish and Fisheries, 21(5), 906-915. doi:10.1111/faf.12469
Bennett, N. J., & Dearden, P. (2014). Why local people do not support conservation: Community perceptions of marine protected area livelihood impacts, governance and management in Thailand. Marine Policy, 44, 107-116. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2013.08.017
O’Garra, T., Mangubhai, S., Jagadish, A., Tabunakawai-Vakalalabure, M., Tawake, A., Govan, H., & Mills, M. (2023). National-level evaluation of a community-based marine management initiative. Nature Sustainability. doi:10.1038/s41893-023-01123-7
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