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Oceans and fisheries
News announcement1 June 2021Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

Science seminar 2021: MPAs – a policy tool with only winners

Marine Protected Area of Torre Guaceto, Italy © Giuma / Adobe Stock
Marine Protected Area of Torre Guaceto, Italy © Giuma / Adobe Stock

Every year, the European Commission organises a seminar on fisheries science. The event attracts dozens of stakeholders from different areas to discuss and learn about topical issues in the fascinating world of oceans and fisheries. The focus of this year’s seminar was on marine protected areas (MPAs), and their beneficial role not just for the environment, but also for fishing and coastal communities.

In its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, the European Commission announced its ambition to increase the European marine waters under protection from 11% today to 30% by 2030. Within this, at least one third will receive strict protection, whereby only limited and strictly controlled activities are allowed, under the condition that they leave natural processes essentially undisturbed.

While this ambition was generally well received, it also provoked some concerns. Would it not stand in the way of a thriving fisheries sector? And is the existing policy framework, which already includes the common fisheries policy, the Habitats and Birds Directives and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, not offering sufficient protection already? After all, in the past decade, the European Union has already made significant progress to conserve fisheries resources and to protect marine ecosystems.

The answer to both questions is no. Although we have a comprehensive policy framework in place, evidence shows that it is not fully implemented across the EU. The progress made so far is not enough to adequately protect and restore nature. For this reason, the new biodiversity strategy promotes a larger and well-connected EU-wide network of protected areas with specific and effective fisheries-management measures, to contribute to the sustainable use of seas and oceans.

Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius said:

Marine protected areas are an important part of the toolbox for protecting our seas and oceans. To be effective, they need to be based on science, have clear conservation objectives and be properly managed.

To make them effective, MPAs need clear conservation objectives and management measures based on the best available scientific advice. Robust science is needed to ensure that MPAs respond to their conservation objectives, that management measures are fit for purpose and deliver benefits to fishermen and other stakeholders.

The science seminar also countered the perceived “trade-off” between environment and economy. But whilst a trade-off implies a zero sum with winners and losers, in the case of MPAs, there are only winners. This is also the spirit of the European Green Deal.

It is true that by their very nature, some types of MPAs (such as no-take marine reserves) can take away fishing grounds in the short term, which can make them unattractive to professional fishermen.

However, there is meanwhile scientific evidence that those areas provide a refuge for species to grow and reproduce, contributing to enhance or sustain adjacent fishing grounds by exporting biomass of adults, eggs and larvae. It is therefore important to look at the full picture, and not just at the short term. Fisheries is not a short-term business anyway.

During the seminar, the case of the Torre Guaceto was presented. Thanks to the establishment of a marine protected area, this eight-kilometre long stretch of coastline north-west of Brindisi (Italy) has turned from an area notorious for cigarette smuggling and dynamite fishing to a pristine sea where fish stocks are recovering and the coastal community is thriving. Watch the Euronews OCEAN episode on the Torre Guaceto MPA for more information.

One crucial success factor from the Torre Guaceto MPA is strong cooperation and early involvement of all stakeholders, including fishermen, grassroots organisations and researchers. This helps create the right conditions to strike the balance between conservation and a profitable use of marine resources. A balance with only winners.

Added on 21 June 2021

Key recommendations from the seminar

MPAs are an investment for a better future for fisheries. There is scientific evidence that substantial benefits for fisheries materialise but it may take some time before they do. In this phase, public and / or private support to fishermen is very important. Well-designed and effectively managed MPAs can offer benefits and constitute a great opportunity, both for the environment and for fisheries.

MPAs need clear conservation objectives and management measures based on the best available scientific advice. We need strong science and data to assess how effective MPAs are, how we can ensure the enabling conditions are in place, and how to dynamically adjust management measures when conditions change.

The sea can be much more productive if it is well managed. The “Torre Guaceto MPA experience” shows that more fish and larger fish can be caught by applying adaptive management in cooperation with stakeholders. On a local scale, this confirms scientific advice and shows very good prospects for improving livelihoods of fishermen while reducing impacts on the marine environment.

Involve all stakeholder in the process of planning and implementing MPAs. MPAs work best where fishermen are involved in their design and management – a climate of trust and cooperation needs to be installed to create buy-in and sense of ownership. Stakeholders have – naturally and not surprisingly – differing opinions about what, why, and how protecting and about how much of MPAs. It is important to observe how the costs and benefits of MPAs are distributed between different groups. And we need to keep up the dialogue involving all - fishermen/industry, NGOs, scientists and MPA managers on the ground – to make sure that we take into account all the knowledge and all the considerations.