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The dollars and sense of protecting the ocean


Groundbreaking research released on the economics of marine protected areas

For the first time anywhere, the analysis of leading economists and ecologists worldwide has been brought together in one place, to examine the economics of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Two special issues of the international research journal Natural Resource Modeling (Vol. 15 Nos. 3 &4) have just been published, within which the editors, Ussif Rashid Sumaila (University of British Columbia) and Anthony Charles (Saint Mary’s University) have assembled ten critically important research articles on MPAs. The articles are by leading economists and ecologists such as Lee Anderson, Rognvaldur Hannesson, Daniel Pauly and Callum Roberts. A wide range of approaches are used to assess the benefits and costs of running MPAs, how economic and ecological factors interact to determine how MPAs fare, and how economics has an influence on decisions about the size and location of MPAs in the ocean.

Over-fishing, habitat destruction and pollution are harming much of the world’s oceans and the life within them. For instance, recent studies have shown that the biomass of ’food’ or high tropic level fishes in the North Atlantic have declined by two-thirds since the early 1950s, and that world fisheries catches have been declining by about 700 thousand tonnes per year since the late 1980s. Recent scientific evidence show that ’fencing off’ parts of the sea, in marine protected areas (MPAs), where fishing and other human uses are closely regulated is a good strategy that can help protect, and possibly restore ocean richness and marine biodiversity. Hence, there seem to be clear ecological advantages to MPA establishment, but what are the economic pro’s and con’s? Until now, there has been little coordinated effort to explore economic questions related to the creation of MPAs.

Sample Results

Taken together, the studies show that there is no single, simple answer to the question: are MPAs a good thing? There can be clear conservation benefits: for example, Fishery benefits of fully protected marine reserves: why habitat and behavior are important, by Roberts and Sargant, shows that MPAs can help maintain the long-term survival of migratory species such as billfish, tunas and sharks, that are most under pressure from fisheries. Both The economics of marine reserves, by Hannesson, and A bioeconomic analysis of marine reserves, by Anderson, show that in most cases MPAs succeed in helping fish populations to increase or to be kept at ’safe’ levels. However, in both the latter cases, the results show that the overall catch declines. A counter-example of this is given in A model of tropical marine reserve - fishery linkages, by Rodwell, Roberts, Barbier, and McClanahan, showing that if a fishery starts out heavily exploited, an MPA could produce higher catches, as well as conserving the fish. The impacts of marine reserves on limited-entry fisheries, by Sanchirico and Wilen, also describes a win-win situation, in which both the fish stock and the value of the fishery increase.

When fishing is not the only ocean use, things can get complicated, as shown in Fish, fishers, seals and tourists: Economic consequences of creating a marine reserve in a multi-species, multi-activity context, by Boncoeur, Alban, Guyader and Thebaud. An examination of MPA economics for a ecosystem containing both fish and seals shows that in one particular situation, the MPA may be good for ecotourism (seal watching) but not for the fishery. Contingent valuation of marine protected areas: Southern California rocky intertidal ecosystems, by Hall, Hall and Murray estimates the benefit of more effective enforcement and management of MPAs designed to avoid coastal ecosystem decay.

Some of the studies produce estimates of the economically desirable MPA size in particular situations – estimates that are well beyond what we see in most of the world. For example, the analysis in A model for the bioeconomic evaluation of marine protected area size and placement in the North Sea, by Beattie, Sumaila, Christensen and Pauly, suggests that an MPA 25-40% of the area being studied would be economically best, while Marine protected area performance in a model of the fishery, by Sumaila, indicates (in the face of true uncertainty) an economically optimal MPA size 50-70% of the total area. These studies provide important insights into the crucial matter of just how much ocean we need to protect.

The goal of a protected area, as its name suggests, is to protect a specified location from certain human impacts. Marine Protected Areas are simply protected areas in the ocean – designated ocean spaces within which human activities are regulated more stringently than elsewhere, typically to achieve certain conservation objectives. The regulation of human uses can range in format from marine reserves (’no-take’ areas in which any form of extraction is prohibited) to ’zoned’ areas in which a variety of uses are permitted to some extent and managed in an integrated manner. MPAs are of great interest both in fishery management and as a tool for ’integrated ocean management’, dealing not only with fishing but also ocean tourism, mining, aquaculture, and so on.

While the successful development and implementation of MPAs clearly involves biological and technical matters, as big a challenge lies on the human side – with connections between MPAs, ocean users and coastal communities, and the task of maximizing overall benefits for society. After all, the implementation of MPAs – like human actions of any sort – produces both benefits and costs. Furthermore, these benefits and costs do not appear uniformly: some may benefit (or suffer) more than others, and both benefits and costs may appear at different stages in time.

Information on how to get hold of copies of the special issues can be obtained by emailing to

For further information please contact:

Ussif Rashid Sumaila
Fisheries Economics Research Unit
Fisheries Centre
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z4

Anthony Charles
Management Science / Environmental Studies
Saint Mary’s University
Halifax N.S. Canada B3H 3C3

John Hearne
Editor, Natural Resource Modeling
Department of Mathematics
University of Natal
Private Bag X01 3209
Scottsville, South Africa

Ussif Rashid Sumaila | EurekAlert!
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