A Global SMART Approach to Improving Management of Marine Protected Areas

A Belize Fisheries Department ranger collecting data from a fisher’s registration card. Photo credit: ©Julio Maaz/WCS Belize.

By Drew T. Cronin & Katherine Holmes

In response to increasing pressure on the world’s fish populations and other marine species and ecosystems, there has been a rapid, global expansion in the number of — and coverage by — Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). People and their governments have stretched their visions for the marine life they cherish and rely on and have decided to set aside vast areas of their waters for protection.

Attention is turning to the management effectiveness and conservation impact of these new and expanded areas. Management, which can encompass a range of roles, is facing the next challenging step of making sure that these areas are protected and lead to their desired conservation impacts.

A range of factors contribute to an MPA’s effectiveness, one of the most important being the degree to which people comply with regulations related to use of the areas. In the wide expanses of the open ocean, most MPAs lack adequate enforcement capacity and many lack strong monitoring programs that can inform their management.

In the wide expanses of the open ocean, most Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) lack adequate enforcement capacity and many lack strong monitoring programs that can inform their management.

This is often due to challenges associated with patrolling and managing areas of ocean that can be both quite large and remote. Enforcement can mean the difference between success and failure of MPAs and their ability to safeguard marine wildlife and resource.

Poor management planning of MPAs can severely compromise their ecological performance. At the same time, effective enforcement of well-designed rules has been shown to be critical to achieving MPA conservation goals as well as improving the biomass and diversity of fisheries, both of which support the food security of millions of people around the world.

Map of SMART sites and nationally-adopting countries. Photo credit: ©SMART Partnership.

Furthermore, long-term ecological monitoring of MPAs has allowed for managers to plan well for how the areas within large MPAs should or should not be used in order to protect certain habitats and species. When this planning is conducted alongside (and with the input of) key resource users such as fishers, it can be a powerful approach that may lead to improved, long-term fisheries health.

We are at a critical juncture for MPAs globally. MPA management capacity and effectiveness are currently outpaced by rapid MPA expansion and there is increasing human pressure on global marine resources. It is critically important that MPA investments focus on proven solutions that can overcome the inherent challenges and deliver cost-effective enforcement and management impact for the benefit of marine biodiversity and fisheries alike.

These challenges are not unlike those facing terrestrial protected areas. In response to these similar needs, a group of conservation organizations* came together to develop the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART; smartconservationtools.org). The SMART software makes it possible to collect, store, communicate, and analyze patrol data on illegal activities, biodiversity, patrol routes, and management actions to better deploy resources and evaluate patrol performance.

SMART comes with a mobile data collection app, combined with a powerful analysis and mapping interface designed for, and customizable by, local users. The ‘SMART Approach’ combines a cutting edge software tool with capacity building and a set of best practices for its effective implementation.

SMART marine patrol recording data on lobster landing data in SMART. Photo credit: ©Julio Maaz/WCS Belize.

SMART has emerged as the global standard for wildlife law enforcement and protected area monitoring. It is implemented in more than 600 conservation areas in 55 countries, with 12 governments adopting SMART at the national-level. However, despite the scale of SMART adoption, it has only recently begun to be leveraged for enforcement and management in the marine realm.

At present, there are 40 marine sites implementing SMART around the world, and there has been growing momentum and interest in SMART marine applications. Marine sites are already showing signs of improved conservation outcomes following SMART roll-out and implementation.

Belize is the site of the most comprehensive marine implementation of the SMART approach to date. It is the first marine site to pilot the use of SMART Connect — a cloud-based extension to SMART. As such, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS’s) Belize Program has been on the forefront of SMART marine implementation, developing into a regional and global leader for SMART marine applications.

As home to rich and diverse marine life — including sea turtles, sharks and rays, aggregating reef fish, and numerous coral species — Belize’s Glover’s Reef has been an ideal site for long-term, multi-disciplinary, and multi-institutional investigations of coral reef systems.

WCS has worked in Belize for more than 30 years. In its early days, WCS provided the technical support needed to establish the country’s very first MPAs — Half Moon Caye Natural Monument and Hol Chan Marine Reserve — and helped to launch the country’s integrated coastal zone management program. Now, at the site level, WCS provides critical technical support and assists with monitoring, management, and training within two Marine Reserves — Glover’s Reef and South Water Caye. These areas lie at the heart of the largest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere: the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

WCS has a field station at Glovers Reef. As home to rich and diverse marine life — including sea turtles, sharks and rays, aggregating reef fish, and numerous coral species — Glover’s has been an ideal site for long-term, multi-disciplinary, and multi-institutional investigations of coral reef systems. It has also been an ideal pilot site for innovative marine protected area management and fisheries management programs.

One of these efforts has been the development, testing, and national roll-out of a “managed access” system. Until recently, Belize’s fisheries, like many others of the world, were considered “open access”; any adult Belizean could obtain a commercial fishing license to fish nearly anywhere in Belize’s territorial waters.

Aerial view of Glover’s Reef. Photo credit: ©Julio Maaz/WCS Belize.

Open access systems can threaten the long-term sustainability of a fisheries sector by encouraging more fishers to compete for limited resources, with a greater incentive to fish illegally. In a managed access system, fishers are licensed to target particular areas. This provides traditional fishermen with secure and dedicated access to fishing areas, thereby reducing competition, turf wars, and the incentive to fish illegally.

Essentially, under Belize’s Managed Access System, fishermen’s incentives flip from catching as much as possible today to conserving the fishery for tomorrow.

Use of SMART has resulted in the identification of high priority enforcement areas more likely to detect illicit activity. More effective management and deployment of patrols and resources has led to an 85 percent decline in the number of MPA fisheries infractions.

In recent years, WCS tested the Managed Access System alongside SMART. And, in 2017, the two were rolled out nationally. Now SMART is implemented by the Belize Fisheries Department and NGO co-managers throughout the country’s national MPA system to monitor human activity, commercial and recreational fishing, and wildlife for the management of MPAs.

Use of SMART has resulted in the identification of high priority enforcement areas more likely to detect illicit activity. More effective management and deployment of patrols and resources has led to an 85 percent decline in the number of MPA fisheries infractions.

Belize is one of the first countries in the developing world to adopt a national, multispecies, secure fishing access program. And, with SMART, it is also enforceable. That success, combined with sound fisheries management, has become an inspiration for other small-scale fishing nations across the developing world.

[*The SMART Partnership currently includes Frankfurt Zoological Society, Global Wildlife Conservation, North Carolina Zoo, Panthera, Peace Parks Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, WIldlife Protection Solutions, World Wildlife Fund, & the Zoological Society of London.]

— — — — — — — — — — — —

Drew T. Cronin is the SMART Partnership Program Manager, based at WCS. Katherine Holmes is the Associate Director of the WCS Global Marine Program.