Are Marine Protected Areas Helping Fisheries in the W. Indian Ocean?

Artisanal fishermen in Mozambique (file image)

Published Jul 19, 2021 10:37 PM by Brian Gicheru Kinyua

Last Thursday, the World Trade Organization (WTO) gathered trade ministers from around the world to deliberate on new rules aimed at reducing government subsidies to the fishing industry. These subsidies are blamed for the decline of fish stocks globally, threatening the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen along with destruction of fragile ocean ecosystems.

Although trade negotiations on fish subsidies are one potent way to curb marine ecosystems destruction, marine protected areas are becoming a dominant strategy in ocean conservation, especially in low-income countries. In fact, in a place like Africa where people highly depend on natural resources, their protection is paramount in poverty alleviation.

This was the inspiration behind the Nairobi Convention. It is a partnership of ten countries in Western Indian Ocean (WIO) with programs domiciled within UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme), and it aims to guide actions towards healthy coastal and marine environments. The region, stretching from Somalia in the north and South Africa in the south, is home to 244 million people. Its combined economic value is estimated at about $20 billion per year. In addition, three of the 64 Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) globally, as categorized by the University of Rhode Island and NOAA - the Somali Current LME, the Agulhas Current and the Arabian Sea LMEs - are found within the broader WIO border. Together, the LMEs are responsible for 95 percent of the productivity of world’s oceans.  This immense wealth is the reason WIO countries are on overdrive in the creation of marine protected areas.

How effective are MPAs in protecting threatened coastal habitats? A report released last Friday by WIOMSA (Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association) and UNEP attempts to tackle this question.

MPAs are generally small, consisting of a median area of less than five square kilometers. Also, the vast majority of these are found close to the coast, meaning that deep-water habitats are heavily under-represented.

So far, WIO countries have declared 143 MPAs - an area covering 550,000 square kilometers, representing seven percent of the total area of all coastal states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the region. Approximately 63 percent of this overall size was brought under protection since the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

For instance, in 2019 Seychelles brought 30 percent of its EEZ under protection, safeguarding the habitats of 2,600 species. South Africa declared 20 new MPAs in the same year. Buoyed by Seychelles Marine Spatial Plan and South Africa’s “Operation Phakisa”- which are framed as the wider Blue Economy framework-, both countries have balanced economic exploitation of Ocean resources and the need for conservation. Although the two countries have managed to exceed the 10 percent target for EEZ protection, at the regional level only seven percent is under protection.

The report also details how establishment of MPAs has evolved with Madagascar pioneering an innovative approach called Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs). Such enables coastal communities to collaborate with government and other stakeholders to protect coastal resources. This is a big leap in conservation management fostering inclusivity of the indigenous coastal communities. One such initiative is the MIHARI Network, which comprises 196 community associations and NGOs and manages 14,000 square kilometers of marine areas around the Madagascar coastline. Its efforts increase local communities’ lobbying at the government level and promise to address coastal poverty.

One major highlight of the report is that since the turn of this century, the objectives of MPAs have evolved from initially focusing on conserving inshore fish stocks, as strictly no-take zones, to covering much larger offshore areas, with diverse zoning schemes that permit multiple uses.

Meanwhile, despite the stellar progress thus far attained in protecting coastal and marine habitats in the WIO region, multiple challenges abound. Many MPAs in the area lack human resources, skills, equipment, and institutional commitment to fulfil their functions. They also suffer from serious decline in conservation funding, a situation that was further exacerbated by COVID-19. The lockdown measures affected tourism revenues, which MPAs in the WIO region depend on to finance operations.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.