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Socorro study hoped to silence MPA critics

Roca Partida, Socorro in the MPA (Clifton Beard)
Roca Partida, Socorro (Clifton Beard)

Welcome ammunition for conservationists pushing for more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to be declared and enforced around the world: according to a new study, establishing the biggest fully protected marine area in North America has proved to have zero negative consequences for the commercial fishing industry. 

The findings, just published by a team of US and Mexican researchers, undercut the sort of objections that often dog the setting-up of effective MPAs – and in fact faced the creators of the Revillagigedo National Park, which embraces the world-class diving destination usually known by the name of one its islands, Socorro. 

Creating the world’s 13th-largest MPA around the Revillagigedo islands in 2017 had been fiercely opposed by Mexico’s fishing lobby, which had argued that it would reduce catches and increase costs.

The new study’s comprehensive “before and after” assessments conclude that, five years on from the creation of the MPA, the improvement in fish stocks within and overflowing outside its boundaries has ensured that the fishing industry is doing as well as it did before, and without having to travel any further afield.  

Revillagigedo National Park now protects more than 148,000sq km of ocean south of the Baja California peninsula. Not all MPAs ban all industrial activity but that is the case at what is nicknamed the “Galapagos of Mexico”, the offshore location that hosts one of the world’s largest aggregations of sharks and manta rays, as well as tuna, humpback whales, five species of turtles and 300 fish species – 36 of which are endemic.

In the Socorro MPA (Talia Cohen)
In the Socorro MPA (Talia Cohen)

The research team was made up of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the UC San Diego, the Mexican Centre for Marine Biodiversity, the Institute of Americas’ Gulf of California Marine Programme and the National Geographic Society.

“Worldwide, the fishing industry has blocked the establishment of the MPAs we urgently need to reverse the human-caused global depletion of sea life,” said study co-author Enric Sala, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society and founder of the Pristine Seas programme. “This study uses satellite tracking of fishing vessels and AI to show that the fishing industry’s concerns are unfounded.

“Even the largest of MPAs, which safeguard entire ecosystems, home to thousands of species of marine creatures, do not impact the handful of fish species that the fishing industry seeks out. The larger the MPA, the larger the benefits.”

Satellite data & AI analysis

The study collected satellite data from government-mandated GPS devices installed on some 2,000 fishing vessels, and analysed this using the Allen Institute for AI’s Skylight platform. This revealed “only a few isolated cases” of illegal fishing within the MPA after 2017, and showed that the boats had not needed to venture over greater distances to maintain previous catch levels.

“The use of satellite tracking devices and AI monitoring platforms was critical to show compliance from the fishing industry and for the MPA managers to monitor the protected area,” said lead author of the study Fabio Favoretto, a post-doctoral scholar at Scripps.

“The findings of this study are consistent with what experts have recorded in other Pacific MPAs,” said co-author Octavio Aburto, a Scripps marine biology professor. “Any arguments to the contrary were just assumptions – this study provides the data to show that negative impacts to fishing do not exist. 

“We hope the results can open a discussion to work together with the fishing industry to protect biodiversity and improve fish stocks.”

Meeting the global goal

Nations are currently debating how to implement the global goal to protect and conserve at least 30% of the ocean by 2030, enshrined in a landmark agreement reached at the UN Global Biodiversity Conference (COP15) last December. 

“Some argue that closing areas to fishing hurts fishing interests, but the worst enemy of fishing is overfishing and bad management – not protected areas,” said Sala.

“We need to expand and strengthen protected areas to ensure that our oceans can continue to provide food, jobs and other vital benefits for future generations. Our study helps to dispel the myth put forward by the industrial fishing lobby that MPAs harm them.

“The clock is ticking until 2030. If the world is serious about protecting the natural world – our life support system – we need to drastically increase ocean protection. Right now, less than 8% of the ocean is somewhat protected, and only 3% is fully protected from fishing and other damaging activities.”

Strategic establishment of MPAs can safeguard more than 80% of the habitats of endangered species, say the scientists – compared to current coverage of less than 2%.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

Also on Divernet: Pristine Seas kicks off 5-year Pacific venture, Canada: MPAs to mean what they say, Bottom-trawling banned in 4 UK MPAs, Government slammed on MPA slackness, Sea Shepherd targets Med ‘Hope Spot’ poachers

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