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.