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You’ll hear a lot more about marine protection in the next few years. The consensus view among scientists is that the world needs to put in place effective protection of 30% of the global ocean by 2030, and decision-makers are now beginning to face up to the urgency of protecting the Mediterranean on a scale far beyond anything that has so far been attempted.
Effective marine protected areas (MPAs) are needed to rebuild fish stocks, mitigate the effects of climate change, secure the future of sustainable fisheries and tourism, and guarantee food, livelihoods and well-being for local communities. There’s a huge amount of work to be done – and an increasing understanding that the word ‘effective’ needs to be taken a lot more seriously than it has been to this point. For WWF, it’s a key area of focus for our fisheries teams in the Mediterranean.
By the end of 2020, MPAs covered 9.68% of the Mediterranean basin. Nevertheless, just 1.27% is covered by MPAs that effectively implement management plans – the rest is composed of mere ‘paper parks’ that make little difference to what’s going on in the water.
The most important figure of all, though, concerns so-called ‘no-take zones’ (NTZs), areas within or outside MPAs where no extractive activities are taking place, therefore leaving ecosystems mostly undisturbed. Studies have found that full protection from extractive activities will likely generate greater ecological, economic and social benefits than if protection is only partial, never mind absent entirely. Yet in 2020 only 0.04% of the Mediterranean basin was covered by NTZs.
From here to 2030, a paradigm shift is needed. Increasing no-take zones and fully protected areas is a clear way of providing ecological benefits while moving closer to achieving international conservation targets. WWF is working to scale up the creation of no-take zones across the region through its involvement in the implementation of the Regional Plan of Action for Small-Scale Fishers, the GFCM-FAO’s strategic plan to put Mediterranean small-scale fisheries on a sustainable footing.
There’s no shortage of examples to prove that NTZs support the sustainability of livelihoods that depend on marine resources. A study of no-take zones in 25 Mediterranean MPAs showed that biomass was on average 420% higher inside the areas than outside, and density – the number of plants and animals – was up by 111%. Fish grow bigger in no-take zones, and bigger fish have far more young: for example, a 40cm European seabass left to grow to 80cm can produce 14 times as many offspring.
This is all highly beneficial from a conservation perspective, but what’s just as important is that fishers and others who are affected by the closure of local areas stand to benefit too. As fish and invertebrates become larger and more abundant and space becomes more limited, some are likely to move outside the zone to other areas – and here is the pay-off for local fishers, their stocks sustainably replenished from the protected population.
The potential economic benefits of no-take zones are very clear in some locations, like Torre Guaceto MPA in Italy or the Columbrates MPA in Spain where small-scale fishers who fish in the partially protected area surrounding the no-take zone record higher catches of greater value. France’s Côte Bleu, an initiative that began in 1983, is another well-known example. And fishers aren’t the only beneficiaries: Spain’s Medes Islands, an MPA with a no-take zone of less than 1km2, generates annual revenues of some €10 million, 85% of which comes from diving and glass-bottomed boats; thousands of visitors come to see the rich marine life that the zone supports, particularly its large fishes.
Every one of these areas, though, is unique in its ecological features and socioeconomic context – and there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all model when it comes to creating no-take zones. Every project WWF is involved with includes different specificities and different challenges, and reaching a point where a well planned, supported and enforced no-take-zone is in place on the water is no simple matter.
A study of the effectiveness of 27 MPAs in the Mediterranean and beyond concluded that the single most important factor in their success was stakeholder participation – and that’s why involving fishers in their creation from the very beginning, along with other local users, is our starting point.
In several different sites we’ve initiated the process that has culminated in the creation of new NTZs. One of the most notable is in Greece, at Gyaros Island. WWF worked to convene a co-management committee for the area, with wide participation of key stakeholders, bringing in scientists to assess the state of its biodiversity while drawing on the knowledge of the local fishers to assess possible protection strategies, and how these might play out to create a more sustainable fishery.
Despite the varying priorities of the Gyaros committee members, they managed to develop an agreed proposal for te creation of an MPA around the island, with controlled access for local small scale professional fishers during five months of each year. Based on this proposal, the Greek state established the Gyaros MPA in 2019. Meanwhile the committee worked to promote other low-impact activities in the area – pescatourism, research projects – to develop alternative income streams. Between them (and with the contribution of WWF) the committee organised monitoring and enforcement duties. After just three years of protection, scientific surveys found there were significantly more fish species present in larger numbers and with larger individuals inside the MPA than outside – and a spillover effect into adjacent areas was also beginning to occur. The iconic dusky grouper returned after a long absence.
In view of these results and the unsuccessful attempt to allow fisheries without strict controls in the summer of 2022, currently the Greek state is considering to turn permanently the entire Gyaros MPA into a full NTZ to ensure the long-term benefits to both marine biodiversity and the local fisheries.