By Dr. Boris Worm
[Note: Dr. Worm is a biology professor at Dalhousie who studies global marine biodiversity: causes, consequences, and conservation. This article is excerpted from his story “Water Worlds” that was originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of Canadian Geographic.]
While MPAs are a relatively new conservation tool in Canada, other countries have decades of experience with them and have repeated significant benefits as a result. New Zealand, for instance, established what is known today as the Cape-Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve in 1977. Scientist Bill Ballentine was one of its biggest proponents, aiming to protect a sliver of ocean from the impact of people so he could study it in a more natural state. Although the reserve was just 5.5 square kilometers, it faced strong opposition from recreational and commercial fishers, who saw no benefit in conserving it.
This changed a few years later, as the newly minted marine park became a major tourist draw. Lobsters and snappers grew large and abundant in the MPA, and could be viewed by divers and snorkelers, but they also replenished areas adjacent to the reserve that had been overfished. When the local lobster fishery took a downturn in the 1980s, the healthy broodstock in the reserve helped re-establish the species elsewhere. And natural predator-prey relationships returned, which in turn helped rich kelp forests blossom. Over time, the MPA helped restore fisheries, as well as ecological processes and habitats….
Success stories such as this have driven most nations to set targets for marine protected areas, with nations around the world agreeing in 2010 to conserve 10 percent of all marine and coastal areas by 2020….
Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore Islands are a stunningly beautiful archipelago northeast of Halifax, and another recent example of an “area of interest” identified by the MPA planning approach. Land in the area known as the “100 Wild Islands” has already been protected by local communities and NGOs and could now be complemented by marine conservation.
This is a wild place. Oftentimes, I can’t spot any sign of people, just ragged coastal forest, bright yellow rockweeds lining the shore, clear blue water with abundant sand lance being chased by pollock, ducks and seals. Although not quite as productive as the Bay of Fundy, this area boasts a wide variety of habitats and is home to a diversity of species. Many people here would welcome an MPA, and several community groups are interested in tourism and other opportunities that would arise from one.
But others fear for their livelihood, as it’s not yet clear how industry in the area will be constrained. The provincial government has weighed in, voicing concerns about limits to fishing, oil and gas, or aquaculture development. Clearly, the reasons we need protected areas are well established on land, but less broadly accepted in the oceans. Yet, as a marine scientist documenting rapid environmental change in the oceans, and its effects on people’s well-being, I see no viable alternative. As on land, we can’t pursue industrial activities everywhere, as some places are simply not suited, too fragile or too important to be exploited. Protecting such keystone places makes both ecological and economic sense.
For example, take the booming lobster fishery, a billion-dollar industry that’s the lifeblood of rural Nova Scotia. It depends on excellent water quality, intact coastal habitats, and a healthy broodstock that can produce more than 50,000 tons of catch year after year. Most industrial development isn’t compatible with this, thus marine conservation aligns with the interests of coastal communities that depend on this fishery. But not everyone benefits from MPAs: in an increasingly crowded ocean, almost every area has some human use associated with it and designating an area for conservation means that opportunities will change….