Marine Reserve Design: Turning Competition into Coordination

Caub MPA in Del Carmen, Philippines

Approximately one year ago, we introduced Fish Forever’s scientific approach to optimizing marine reserves, which balances dual benefits for conservation and sustainable fisheries. This process — designing networks of no-take reserves coupled with managed access fishing areas that span adjacent communities — links ecological connectivity with the scale of how fisheries are used. It also models how fish and their habitats are naturally connected to identify critical areas to protect. Equally, it ensures that protected areas provide spillover into the fishing grounds to sustain the fishery. As we’ve written before, this connectivity collectively provides benefits for species and habitat recovery and fisheries yield.

The success and benefits of this approach depend on convincing its primary stakeholders — the small-scale fishing communities and government authorities — of the importance of two things: protecting the ecologically-important reserve areas to ensure a fishery’s future and recognizing the implications of each area’s contribution to the more extensive reserve network. That is, scientific guidance is the starting point. It’s just as critical that those closest to the resources have bought into the science behind creating these networks, are using the outputs to decide where the reserves will be, and understand that they are both ecologically and socially connected to other fishing communities — that what they, or their neighboring fishers, do, affects the shared future of the region’s marine resources.

Fish Forever’s networked reserve design approach is both a scientific and behavioral solution to a cooperative dilemma — the classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario in the marine realm where what is best for the individual in the short term is bad for the group (and the individual) in the long term. Creating effective marine reserve networks must turn a problem of individual competition, and the temptation to fish in the reserve, to one related to enhanced social coordination — where the collective benefits from the reserves to the community are seen to outweigh a solo gain.

Connecting the Dots: Science meets Social Connectivity

Marine reserves influence fishing behavior in the context of a socio-ecological system. Thus, community involvement and local data collection, integrated into ecological modeling, provides the scientific backbone to support the long-term success of networked reserve design. Including communities in designing protected areas is imperative for long-term ecological and social benefits, as published in the scientific literature about marine protected areas (MPAs) (and reinforced at the recent United Nations Fish and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) International Symposium on Fisheries Sustainability) (Kockel et al. 2019, Nikitine, et al. 2018, and Chirico, et al. 2017). But while the academic literature stresses that coordination, contextualization, and incorporating larval dispersal patterns into marine spatial planning are each important, networking MPAs and reserves for both ecological and social connectivity has not been implemented broadly.

Coral and fish in the Tañon Strait.

Progress on Networked Marine Reserve Design in the Philippines and Indonesia

To this end, Rare works closely with partners to operationalize and contextualize the approach for effective implementation with and for small-scale fishing communities. Over the last 18 months, Rare has piloted this approach in the Philippines’ Tañon Strait — the country’s largest MPA and a protected seascape. This marine area, which is particularly important for regional fisheries sustainability and biodiversity conservation, is also a potential challenge to manage: at over 520,000 hectares, it’s under the jurisdiction of the national government, two regions, three provinces, 42 coastal cities and towns, and almost 300 villages. A Protected Area Management Board governs the Strait and provides a mechanism for the local government units to align behind one management plan.

Throughout successive workshops and trainings, Rare staff and municipal government implementing partners gathered input from these stakeholders, including local fishers, and presented them with the full scientific and social data related to the strait’s ecological connectivity, current uses, and management zones (including existing reserves and their sizes). Armed with the big picture, engaged in the process of sharing knowledge, and newly convinced of the regional importance of protecting this important area, the stakeholders transparently designed and advanced a strategy and management measures to coordinate, connect and optimize the reserves and managed access areas.

For example, in the Amlan municipality, the stakeholders expanded two no-take zones from 15 hectares to 67 hectares and declared the remaining municipal waters as managed access areas with improved fishing rules and access regulations. Other seascape cities, such as Badian, Bais City, San Remigio, Bantayan, and Escalante City, are following suit. Generally speaking, the local government units within the Strait follow the principle of reciprocity (allowing neighboring fishers to fish in their designated managed access areas). That said, Rare is working closely with Bantayan and Escalante, in particular, to help the governments consider how to better align on management, given that these areas are particularly ecologically important for the whole seascape.

Local fishers pulling in their catch in Amlan, Philippines.

Rare has also made significant progress applying this approach to Indonesia’s Southeast Sulawesi (SES) province, an Indonesian province (one of 34) that comprises over 1,200 square miles of coastal seas. This region, which is governed by a provincial government and 16 coastal districts (and made up of over 950 coastal villages), has established three marine conservation areas to-date. The province is in the process of designing 22 managed access areas that protect approximately 20% of critical habitat as no-take reserves.

Rare and its local government implementing partners are working with the SES stakeholders in 11 coastal districts (~200 communities) to consider this area as one large network in which management plans align across managed access areas and reserves. To date, Rare has gathered input to present key stakeholders with a fuller picture of the ecological and social data that will support the ongoing process of designing networks of managed access areas with reserves.

Feedback from the Indonesian government and fishing community partners to these efforts has been positive. Among district government partners, the need to consider ecological connectivity and reserve size for effective management has become an accepted new concept. Among fishing communities, creating a more level understanding of the importance and value of reserves (with reserves new to many communities) has inspired new conversations about potential community-based management measures and flagged future discussion needs.

What’s Next: Networking for Efficacy

Networked marine reserve design development and implementation have advanced significantly within the last year. In addition to the examples cited above, Rare is conducting climate vulnerability assessments to identify strategies that communities can use to build adaptive capacity to climate change’s effects. Rare and partners are also working to incorporate species range and habitat shifts resulting from changes in ocean temperature into the approach. For example, as species migrate, they may no longer be found within the bounds of traditional fishing areas, and the analyses will help fisheries management consider actions needed to adapt to climate change.

Further, Rare is working with academic partners to develop an interactive tool that enables decision-makers (national, subnational, and local) to apply the managed access and reserve network approach across regions that are critical for sustainable fisheries and biodiversity. This tool is a vital step toward ensuring connections between and among ecological and social networks and coordinating effective management at broad scales.

This work is more important than ever. Common themes reverberating at the UN FAO’s first-ever international symposium on fisheries sustainability, held in mid-November and attended by over 1,000 participants from civil society, NGOs, academia, and government, included the need to engage and involve communities in making decisions about their resources, prioritize data for decision-making, devolve authority to resource users, share more positive messaging regarding the small-scale fisheries sector, and build climate change effects into any future work. Networked reserve design offers a solution to address many of these challenges.



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