Protecting Fish and Fishermen: Marine Reserves in the United States Demonstrate Major Benefits to Fisheries
With the world’s fisheries facing a major crisis and more than 75% of fish stocks heavily over-fished, recovering or fished to the limit, governments, international organizations and marine scientists around the world are looking to find solutions to prevent the complete collapse of the world's fisheries. In recent years, marine reserves have been shown to be a powerful tool to protect marine species and habitats while allowing us to continue industrial scale fishing. Depleted stocks of commercially important fish not only recover rapidly within the reserves but also supply fisheries beyond their boundaries: adult and young fish are “spilling-over” from reserves to fishing grounds.
But the impact marine reserves have on fish populations and nearby fisheries vary and depend on reserve size, habitat and management measures applied in the reserve. In the United States, two examples of fishery reserve closures are providing dramatic evidence that marine reserves do contribute to stock replenishment and increased fisheries benefits if managed properly to involve multiple stakeholders.
Case 1: Georges Bank fishery closures, Maine -- A commercial fishing success story
Georges Bank off the United States’ east coast was once one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world, but fish populations collapsed after decades of intensive commercial fishing.
In 1994, three large areas totalling 17,000 km2 were closed to fishing for groundfish, a multispecies group including cod, haddock and flounders. Fishing gear that might catch groundfish incidentally or damage habitats, ie scallop dredges, were also prohibited, but other forms of fishing such as long-lining were allowed to continue.
When the reserve was created, immediate questions were raised about how to enforce a closed fishing zone of such enormous size. To ensure proper enforcement, a high proportion of local fishing vessels were equipped with satellite monitoring systems to collect information about their location. This data was monitored and used by the National Marine Fisheries Service to verify that vessels stayed outside the area boundaries. The results were positive and showed that the boundaries were respected by the fishermen. This approach proves a useful example of how to enforce protected areas over large areas and on the high seas.
Additional fishery management measures such as groundfish fishing permit limitation, increase of trawl mesh size and reduction of groundfish fishing time were applied in the reserve. The combination of those more traditional measures together with the closure of large areas rapidly showed positive results.
After five years of protection, the closed areas proved a major success for groundfish populations. Stocks of haddock and flounder in particular showed rapid recovery from over-fishing. Cod population have responded more slowly, but biomass is increasing as well, and cod fishermen are now receiving the benefits of the closure. In 2001, a Cape Cod fisherman described that he now only must travell half the distance to catch twice as much cod – a major improvement compared to the poor situation prior to the closures.
For the benfit of fisheries, adult and young fish are "spilling-over" from the closed areas to the outside fishing grounds. The most dramatic effect of the closures was on scallops. Scallops rebounded after five years of protection reaching 9 to 14 times the density of legal size scallops in fished areas. Again, fishermen benefitted from this upward trend: scallop fishing vessels concentrated near the edge of the closed areas, gaining much higher catches as a result of scallop spill-over from closed to the fished areas.
The Georges Bank is an exciting example of how large fishery closures can dramatically improve fishing activities for many species.
Case 2: Sambos Ecological Reserve, Florida – Showing Promises of Fisheries Benefits after just a few years
Another much smaller and very young reserve is Sambos Ecological Reserve, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Sambos reserve was closed to fishing in 1997, covering an area of about 31 km2, and it was initially designed to protect an intact ecosystem.
After only one year of protection, fish densities of yellowtail snapper in the reserve were on the increase, whilst they were on the decrease in fished areas. Increases in grouper populations also appeared faster in the no-take areas than outside.
Still, local fishers were sceptical and felt excluded from the decision-taking process. Major efforts were made to include all involved parties in subsequent decisions and the situation between the reserve and the fishers has improved tremendously.. Furthermore, an analysis of the fishery catch value of fishers displaced by the reserve showed that they did not suffer financially due to its creation, but their net earnings actually increased.
Commercial fishermen in the Keys area catch mainly spiny lobsters and stone crabs, and their catch rates increased after the creation of the reserve. After only a couple of years, more and bigger lobsters were found within the reserve. Fishermen started to set their traps close to the reserve boundaries, soon experiencing benefits from lobster spill-over from the no-take area to the fished areas.
Although the Sambos Reserve is much smaller than the Georges Banks, it also shows that fisheries can benefit from the creation of closed areas in a very short time period. But all stakeholders, including fishermen, must be involved in the process of establishing marine reserves in order to ensure appropriate management, enforcement and benefits over time.
These two examples show how marine reserves both large and small can provide significant benefits to both the fish species and habitats protected, but also to fishermen. Callum Roberts and Fiona Gell, authors of Benefits Beyond Boundaries: The Fishery Benefits of Marine Reserves have estimated that the greatest benefits to fisheries occur when 20 - 30% of the fishery is closed.
For further information:
Communications Manager – Endangered Seas Programme