Protecting and conserving our natural resources is important now and for future generations. National parks, land-use conservation, and marine reserves all contribute to this effort. The gains that come from conservation are indisputable—often quantified as ecosystem services. This is especially true in terms of the enhanced biodiversity and the long-term sustainability that go with preserving our natural assets.

Of course, skeptics also invariably argue that conservation comes at the expense of business, and with it the pro?ts that might be earned from the use of natural resources. Setting aside forests, prime pasture, and sections of the ocean for noncommercial use are typical examples. Commercial concerns will argue that such closures simply limit economic activity and close off not only pro?tability, but vital employment opportunities.

But must this always be the case? The answer is no. There are clear examples where the use of conservation zones in fact enhances pro?tability. This can be true for both forest management and the way in which we handle land and pasture. A recent strong example of how conservation areas add to commercial pro?tability comes from the use of marine reserves (or “no-take” areas) in ocean ?sheries.

Marine reserves have existed in one form or another for thousands of years, and are frequently located in areas identi?ed as key population sources for existing ?sheries, such as breeding or nursery areas. In addition to permanent reserves, ?sh have also been protected for particular periods of the year in almost every ?shing culture, and temporary closures still remain an important component of ?sheries management in many countries.

Recently, however, the use of marine reserves has become even more extensive, with many new and permanent closures. This is due in large part to the failure of traditional ?sheries management. Many ocean ?sh stocks are indeed depleting, some rapidly. Estimates for over?shing range from 28 percent to as much as 63 percent of world stocks of ?sh, with estimated ?sh stocks that have already collapsed ranging from 7–14 percent of the total.1,2 Of the 60 percent of the world’s ?sheries in need of rebuilding, only 1 percent are making some progress. Regions with ?sh stocks in greatest need of recovery include the Northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea, followed by the Northwest Atlantic, the Southeast Atlantic, the Southeast Paci?c, and the Southern Ocean.

The stakes are high here. The need for sustainability in ?sheries (wild-capture and farm-owned combined) is important, since this sector provides 17 percent of people’s intake of animal protein. As many as 820 million people, or about 12 percent of the world’s population, are involved in ?sh production, processing, or its related industries.

Marine-protected areas, marine reserves, and no-take zones have proven substantial biological and conservation bene?ts. A growing body of research shows that ?sh populations inside a no-take zone can more than quadruple, providing enhanced ?sh stocks and needed resilience effects.

But what about pro?tability? The ?shing industry has always objected to the use of marine reserves, claiming that closing ?shing grounds will simply lower pro?tability and catch. True? Not always, and not long term, and especially not when the effects of potential negative shocks to ?sheries, such as bad weather, or the effects of climate change are considered.

Reserves, put simply, generate a resilience effect, not only biologically, but economically. They act as buffer stocks, where a negative shock to a ?shery can be compensated for by spillover effects in ?sh stocks from a nearby no-take area. This buffer stock effect can be substantial, leading not only to higher catches over time, but both quicker return to pro?tability and higher sustainable pro?ts. Simulations from the Paci?c halibut ?shery show exactly this. The larger the negative shocks in the ?shery, the more frequently they occur and the more they proportionally affect the harvested population, the larger will be the economic payoff from a marine reserve.3 A similar study shows that the use of marine reserves would have even prevented the collapse of the northern cod fishery, a major ?shery off the coast of Canada, now gone, now with no pro?tability.4

In this spirit, Australia has acted by recently declaring a new and extensive system of planned marine reserves, covering an additional 2.3 million square hectares of the ocean. Indeed, if marine reserves enhance pro?tability, perhaps ?shers should even help pay to establish these reserves, rather than always being compensated for the loss of ?shing grounds. That’s a solution worth looking at.


Tom Kompas

Tom Kompas is the Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy and Professor of Economics at the Australian National University (ANU). He is also the Foundation Director of the Australian Centre for...

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