Conservation and Profits: Always in Conflict?

Protecting and conserving our natural resources is important now and for future generations. National parks, land-use conservation, and marine reserves all contribute to this effort. The gains that come from conservation are indisputable—often quantified as ecosystem services. This is especially true in terms of the enhanced biodiversity and the long-term sustainability that go with preserving our natural assets.

Of course, skeptics also invariably argue that conservation comes at the expense of business, and with it the profits that might be earned from the use of natural resources. Setting aside forests, prime pasture, and sections of the ocean for noncommercial use are typical examples. Commercial concerns will argue that such closures simply limit economic activity and close off not only profitability, but vital employment opportunities.

But must this always be the case? The answer is no. There are clear examples where the use of conservation zones in fact enhances profitability. This can be true for both forest management and the way in which we handle land and pasture. A recent strong example of how conservation areas add to commercial profitability comes from the use of marine reserves (or “no-take” areas) in ocean fisheries.

Marine reserves have existed in one form or another for thousands of years, and are frequently located in areas identified as key population sources for existing fisheries, such as breeding or nursery areas. In addition to permanent reserves, fish have also been protected for particular periods of the year in almost every fishing culture, and temporary closures still remain an important component of fisheries management in many countries.

Recently, however, the use of marine reserves has become even more extensive, with many new and permanent closures. This is due in large part to the failure of traditional fisheries management. Many ocean fish stocks are indeed depleting, some rapidly. Estimates for overfishing range from 28 percent to as much as 63 percent of world stocks of fish, with estimated fish stocks that have already collapsed ranging from 7–14 percent of the total.1,2 Of the 60 percent of the world’s fisheries in need of rebuilding, only 1 percent are making some progress. Regions with fish stocks in greatest need of recovery include the Northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea, followed by the Northwest Atlantic, the Southeast Atlantic, the Southeast Pacific, and the Southern Ocean.

The stakes are high here. The need for sustainability in fisheries (wild-capture and farm-owned combined) is important, since this sector provides 17 percent of people’s intake of animal protein. As many as 820 million people, or about 12 percent of the world’s population, are involved in fish production, processing, or its related industries.

Marine-protected areas, marine reserves, and no-take zones have proven substantial biological and conservation benefits. A growing body of research shows that fish populations inside a no-take zone can more than quadruple, providing enhanced fish stocks and needed resilience effects.

But what about profitability? The fishing industry has always objected to the use of marine reserves, claiming that closing fishing grounds will simply lower profitability and catch. True? Not always, and not long term, and especially not when the effects of potential negative shocks to fisheries, such as bad weather, or the effects of climate change are considered.

Reserves, put simply, generate a resilience effect, not only biologically, but economically. They act as buffer stocks, where a negative shock to a fishery can be compensated for by spillover effects in fish stocks from a nearby no-take area. This buffer stock effect can be substantial, leading not only to higher catches over time, but both quicker return to profitability and higher sustainable profits. Simulations from the Pacific halibut fishery show exactly this. The larger the negative shocks in the fishery, the more frequently they occur and the more they proportionally affect the harvested population, the larger will be the economic payoff from a marine reserve.3 A similar study shows that the use of marine reserves would have even prevented the collapse of the northern cod fishery, a major fishery off the coast of Canada, now gone, now with no profitability.4

In this spirit, Australia has acted by recently declaring a new and extensive system of planned marine reserves, covering an additional 2.3 million square hectares of the ocean. Indeed, if marine reserves enhance profitability, perhaps fishers should even help pay to establish these reserves, rather than always being compensated for the loss of fishing grounds. That’s a solution worth looking at.