By: Stuart Campbell
So if we tell people living in coastal communities, who depend on fish for food and income every day, that there is evidence from far off places that No Take Areas or No Fishing Areas work, why would we expect them to believe us? On some type of faith? Maybe not, but in some ways we as conservationists, with ethics and beliefs in the protection of natural habitats, have some sort of obligation to demonstrate the worth of such measures to people who live by the sea, and to those we ask to implement and follow the laws that we advocate.
Certainly the science of the benefits of no fishing areas related to preserving biodiversity, protecting fish species and replenishing depleted stocks are well described outside Indonesia. Yet we surely have a duty to test these theories with the people who are most likely to benefit or be impacted—local fishers.
So despite the excellent work being conducted by numerous organizations in the country, and the strong support by the national government of Indonesia for expanding marine protected areas to encompass 20 million hectares by 2020, why is there so little information on the simple question of whether MPAs in Indonesia have boosted reef fish stocks?
We have accurate information on the biomass or cover of forests over the past years as well as on commercial fish stocks which the government has collected, regardless of their accuracy.
However, information on the impact of MPAs on nearshore reef fishes that are exploited by artisanal and non-artisanal fishing gears is limited to a few studies in Sulawesi in the early 2000’s (e.g. Christie et al. 2004, 2005) and some excellent work on the decline of spawning aggregations in Komodo (Pet et al. 2005), and maybe a few studies here and there I may have missed.
Is it simply that we have not measured the success, or lack thereof, of management interventions for long enough to test if fish stocks are indeed re-building? Or is it that we have tried (but MPAs are poorly designed to benefit fish stocks) or we have used poorly designed and inconsistent methodologies which cannot answer the questions we pose? Or do the bean counters of conservation programs believe that fish counters are just too expensive?
All are to blame.
Many MPAs have poorly designed zoning schemes and many efforts to measure fish densities and size have used outdated methods that simply do not stand up to rigorous assessment. The data collected is highly variable and for the most part unable to detect the effectiveness of management interventions.
The data literally stays on computers and then disappears. A number of poor practices are also used, including counting only few species which leads to highly variable results, and using free swimming techniques over short distances instead of transects to define the area, which also introduces high levels of variability in the data.
Another problem is the lack of trained local partners to consistently identify, count and measure the size of each fish observed in the 10 or so key families. Lack of resources is another obstacle, but a prevalent belief that it is all too difficult is common.
As any good ecologist will tell you, all this is not rocket science and with some consistently applied efforts, and keeping the methods simple we can see if management actions such as No Take Areas are working:
- Accurately counting and recording the size of fishes is important to estimate the magnitude of fishing impacts or the rate at which marine ecosystems are being altered by fishing or other impacts.
- Measuring and reporting changes in marine biodiversity by tracking trends in fish abundance and also recording fish size to derive biomass and trophic structure of reef fish populations, relative to reference points for conservation and sustainable use is clearly required.
By assessing all reef fishes across a range of key families, we can better detect and convey the true impact of fisheries on marine biodiversity and trophic structure.To increase the amount of information on the abundance and biomass of Indonesian reef fish in relation to management, the WCS team has been working with a range of local partners, including The Nature Conservancy, to examine the status of reef fishes inside and outside 11 large MPAs across Indonesia.
We examined fish in No Take Areas, fishing gear restriction zones and in areas open to fishing. Despite some general gloom about the effectiveness of MPAs in Indonesia, our preliminary analyses are showing that fish biomass is about 33% higher overall in No Take Areas compared to areas with fishing gear restrictions, which in turn is around 25% higher than in areas that are open to fishing.
Some areas in west Papua averaged around 1800 kg of reef fish per hectare, nearly double the biomass of the best reefs in the rest of Indonesia (around 1000 kg) and more than double the average reef fish biomass in No Take Areas across MPAs in Indonesia (outside West Papua) of around 800 kg of reef fish per hectare. A sustainable biomass for reef fish is considered to be around 1200 kg per hectare.
So there is some good news. These very preliminary results are suggesting that No Take Areas do work in Indonesia in terms of allowing higher biomass inside their boundaries compared with areas open to fishing. But these initial findings show that No Take Areas in Indonesia are depleted compared to reefs that have received higher levels of protection and compliance by fishers in other parts of the world.
This is not going to surprise anyone who works on MPAs and fisheries in Indonesia, but at last we have some authoritative information on the effectiveness of Indonesian MPAs relative to those elsewhere. We will fully analyze the dataset with our partners and hopefully publish the work in the future.
In places we work, we are showing these results to local people, in particular in Sulawesi, Karimunjawa, Aceh and Lombok, who are helping to build support for fishing restrictions as communities see the benefits of building a ‘bank’ of fish that can spill over into other areas where fishing is permitted.