Over the last year, I’ve had the chance to scuba dive and take photos at some of the most successful examples of marine protected areas in Asia and the Pacific. These areas, where governments restrict human activities to conserve marine life, are a cornerstone of efforts to nurture life in the world’s oceans.
The first, Raja Ampat, in West Papua, Indonesia, an astonishing archipelago comprising hundreds of small islands, hosts such an abundance of marine species that they obscure sunlight from the surface. The rangers patrolling the area are local villagers, protecting it from illegal fishing and other unlawful activities. In addition to tourism revenues, local communities can fish for their own consumption in specified areas.
The second, the small nation of Palau in the Western Pacific, is a dedicated shark sanctuary where tourists fly from in all over the world for the chance to observe these majestic apex predators in their natural habitat. Diving tourism contributes about 39% of the country’s gross domestic product. That means every single shark generates about $1.9 million during its lifetime, compared to about $100 of fishing income for the same shark caught for its meat and fins.
And finally, Tubbataha Reef, in Palawan, Philippines. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located about a hundred miles off the coast and is a refuge for hundreds of marine species, including large predators like sharks and tuna, and a nesting site for birds and marine turtles. The local community did not initially welcome its declaration as a marine protected area until they realized the benefits. Their local fishing areas are now richer, as fish from the no-take area in Tubbataha spill over to their waters. They also receive shares from tourism revenues for their livelihood programs.
These are magnificent examples of why investing in marine protected areas makes sense. Revenues for local governments and small and medium-sized enterprises increase and local communities benefit. Sustainable tourism also brings increased opportunities to diversify their jobs and livelihoods.
Most importantly marine protected areas safeguard biodiversity, our safety net against unexpected changes in the environment. Biodiversity – and the complicated interactions between different organisms – is the infrastructure that supports all life. It has allowed humans to thrive so far, sheltering us from our own environmental disruptions and providing vital services that we continue to overexploit. When we lose species, the web of life is altered and it needs to re-organize itself with unpredictable consequences. This in turn affects the resilience of ecosystems and nature’s capacity to provide the services from which we humans benefit.
I’m loathe to put a dollar sign on living creatures, more so on biodiversity, but even from a natural capital perspective, investing in marine biodiversity through marine protected areas makes great economic sense.
Well-managed, science-based marine protected areas generate numerous benefits for fisheries and tourism, as well as a cascade of other positive effects, particularly to the private sector. A 2015 study on five marine protected areas in Vanuatu and five others in Fiji showed that tourism businesses, followed by village households, benefited the most from these areas. This was done by improving the aesthetics of nature for tourism, as well as maintaining coastal protection and fisheries productivity.
As I write this, marine species are being wiped out by industrial and unregulated fishing all around the globe. A look at Global Fishing Watch’s near real-time vessel tracking map is mind-blowing: industrial fishing is so massive almost no ocean is free from it. The pressure is so extensive that fish populations have no time to recover and nowhere to find shelter.
To avoid the definitive collapse of fish stocks, some scientists have started advocating for a global ban of fishing on the high seas. Only 10% of the global fish catch comes from the high seas, so this could be advantageous, but it would require an unprecedented global agreement. Marine protected areas, with no-take zones and surrounded by sustainable artisanal fisheries and eco-tourism, have shown to protect biodiversity by allowing fish populations to recover, and empower local communities with livelihoods based on protecting their natural resources.
Scientific studies have estimated that a global marine protected area network conserving 20% to 30% of the world's seas could create around one million jobs and cost between $5 billion and $19 billion annually to run. While seemingly high, these costs are still less than what governments currently spend to subsidize industrial fisheries, estimated to be more than $20 billion annually. These subsidies also help developed world boats to overfish developing-world stocks.
On a personal level, we can help protect marine biodiversity. What we buy and eat matters. We need to be fully aware of the source of our seafood – including industrial aquaculture, which has its own set of problems – and choose wisely. However, in many countries, it’s often hard to tell, so I decided to remove all seafood from my diet. As more choices of seafood from sustainable fisheries become available on the market, I will re-consider my decision.
On a larger scale, ADB is helping its member countries to make informed and long-term investments in sustainable fisheries and infrastructure, marine protected areas, blue economy, pollution control and coastal ecosystem restoration. ADB‘s Action Plan for Healthy Oceans and Sustainable Blue Economies will invest $5 billion in ocean health and marine economy projects over the next five years.
These investments will protect marine biodiversity and the ecosystem services oceans provide, but also prove financially rewarding in the long-term, and ultimately help ensure our own survival.