Saturday, June 02, 2007

Marine reserves and national parks

The April 2007 issue of the National Geographic magazine had an extensive series about the looming problems of over fishing across the world, with fish “harvests” beginning to show extremely worrying trends. To people across the world following fishing trends, this isn’t new. The fishing industry of Newfoundland has been struggling for years, with plummeting yields. Fishermen across the world (particularly in Asia and Africa) now complain that they have to travel farther and into deeper waters to get any fish. The problems are complex, starting from trawlers that use massive nets, and just discard over 40% of their catch (which die in vain), keeping only lucrative species for commercial sale. The net result is that marine ecosystems across the world are facing severe strain from overfishing.

Now, we don’t think of fish as something that really needs to be protected. There aren’t any cute and cuddly panda-fish or tiger-fish or polar bear-fish that can act as iconic mascots of conservation. Yet, fish and seafood provide a substantial proportion of the protein intake of a major percentage of the world’s population, and determine the livelihood of millions of people. And though we don’t ever think about it, the health of the oceans will affect the health of the entire world (the oceans cover a major proportion of the world’s surface, and hold a majority of all life on the planet).

Anyway, coming back to the protection of fish, I first read about the concept of marine national parks in this issue of NG. And it looks like that little country down under, New Zealand, has taken the leadership role in protecting its marine ecosystems. More importantly, this is having substantial economic benefits as well.

New Zealand has almost all of the world’s ”no take” marine reserves. And by no take, it means that these reserves do not allow any fishing activity (commercial or recreational) what so ever. But what is the use of a marine reserve? It was hardly surprising that a lot of fishermen at first strongly opposed this idea, since they would have been denied fishing rights in that area. But the marine reserves have actually gone on to improve fishing beyond imagination.

Usually, fishing (particularly modern fishing) is extremely destructive to marine ecosystems. The most lucrative species are the larger fish (like tuna, shark, mackerel and the like), which are key predators on top of the food pyramid keeping the balance of that ecosystem. In their absence smaller fish and other creatures start to proliferate rapidly, some more so than others. This results in the eventual complete destruction of coral reefs and local marine ecosystems, finally leaving behind what I imagine a marine desert would be like. But what a marine park (which prevents all human activity) does is this: it acts as a central resource for the entire marine region beyond. In this protected area, fish breed without disturbance, and the complete ecosystem (from plankton to kelp to algae to crustaceans through fish and mammals) retains a balance. The “spillover” effect and larval export – where millions of eggs and larvae drift beyond the reserve and replenish neighboring areas– is massive. In effect the reserve serves as a replenishing ground for the entire area, and in the end the fishing industry all around benefits.

There are also obvious benefits to the recreational and tourism industry, and marine reserves in New Zealand have hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, providing a substantial economic benefit.

To think of marine reserves as the “libraries” of the sea, where all the life of the seas are showcased, preserved and promoted is a new concept. But it certainly is a new concept in the right direction, and one that will leave this planet in better shape for subsequent generations. Conservation, contrary to popular imagination, is not bad for economics, but in the long run is essential for economic well being.

(And while the George W. Bush government has been routinely criticized for severely damaging the parks and wildlife services and national parks across the country, Bush’s visionary designation of the Hawaiian Marine reserve, the world’s largest marine reserve, deserves all the praise it can get).

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