Science in danger of being diluted in marine reserve discussions

by Dr Rebecca McLeod

I recently went to a talk by Kim Hill entitled “Is science something we should fear?”

Rebecca McLeod
Rebecca McLeod

Being a scientist, I thought Kim was making a joke. Why would the public not value and embrace the knowledge and lessons learned by people that in essence, spend their time trying to better understand and improve the world? It started me thinking about the role that scientists should have in guiding decisions about how we manage our environment, in particular our coastal marine areas.

New Zealand has an excellent reputation for marine conservation, due to initiatives including our quota management system and the growing numbers of marine reserves. The Government is currently developing a framework that will essentially allow locals to decide how they want marine protection measures to proceed around their coasts.

This move is occurring partly in response to very vocal opposition to proposed marine reserves in some parts of the country. The idea is that by involving the community in the decision process, people will have a vested interest in the outcomes, resulting in a higher level of support for the introduced protection measures.

The framework for these local groups will be similar to that of the Fiordland Marine Guardians; a group of “stakeholders” (e.g. fishers, tangata whenua, tourism operators etc.), who proposed a series of conservation measures to be established in the fjords. Following many years of discussion, negotiation, and compromise, the Guardians presented a proposal to Parliament in 2003, and in 2005 the Fiordland Marine Management Act was established. The protection measures include 10 marine reserves, reductions in recreational quota, and restrictions on commercial fishing areas, anchoring etc. These decisions were guided by the expert opinion and knowledge of a marine ecologist from Otago University.

In February 2008 the Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Fisheries released an implementation strategy for this new regional approach to marine management. The document outlines how a forum of up to 14 stakeholders will be appointed in each of the defined regions in NZ. These stakeholders will encompass tangata whenua, commercial fishers, recreational users, conservation groups, tourism operators, aquaculture industry, minerals industry… and scientists.

It will be the task of each forum to reach a consensus on areas to be proposed for marine protection, and make recommendations of what the protection measures should involve. Each of the stakeholders will have equal status in discussions and decision-making. This is the part that concerns me.

Processes that occur in the marine environment and marine ecosystems are inherently complex and can vary significantly over small distances, and also over time. The effectiveness of protection measures are likely to be dependent upon what they consist of, where they are placed, and how big an area they cover.

For example, in the fjords it appears that the new marine reserves are differing in their ability to “recover”. In Doubtful Sound, we have found that changes in crayfish numbers can be related to the amount of food that is available at each location. Near the output of the Manapouri hydroelectric power station, where increased freshwater has led to a decline in mussels and other clams (crayfish food), crayfish are not recovering.

In contrast, in other marine reserves where there is plenty of crayfish food, crayfish numbers are rapidly increasing. This is just one of many examples that demonstrate the success of a marine protected area (MPA) can vary significantly depending on its location, shape and size.

Whilst it is incredibly important to have the support of the local community for MPAs, it is equally, if not more important to get the characteristics of the MPA correct in the first place. Otherwise, it is possible that no amount of protection will lead to “recovery” of the marine ecosystem. To increase the likelihood of designing an MPA that is going to be effective, management recommendations put forward by the regional forums need to critically evaluate all reliable knowledge and data pertaining to the marine environment in question.

And keep in mind that this information will not necessarily come solely from scientists. The extensive local knowledge of other interested parties such as fishers and tangata whenua has a large role to play here too. My point is that debate and negotiation from all interested parties should be based upon the best available knowledge, and where available, data.

To provide advice about how to design effective MPAs, scientists need answers to questions such as: What lives there? How fast do things grow and how much do they move around? Where does the food come from that is supporting the community? Where do the young come from? Are there any ongoing impacts?

It is paramount that decisions regarding the placement and degree of MPAs are based upon such fundamental ecological knowledge, and you would be surprised just how little is known about these processes on a small scale around our coasts. So, to support management recommendations and decisions that will have a high likelihood of success, it is essential that the Government funds fundamental ecological research in our coastal seas.

Earlier I said that I was concerned about scientists being considered as stakeholders in these regional forums. These concerns are due to the fact that when it comes to deciding upon management recommendations, scientists will effectively have one 14th of the vote.

I am concerned that such a small influence will lead to expert scientific advice getting diluted. Ask any scientist that has witnessed or been involved in the process of the creation of an MPA: “was it big enough?” And they will invariably say “NO!” Because more often than not during the consultation and negotiation process, the size of the desirable MPA gets whittled down to a fraction of it’s former self.

The question to these scientists then becomes: “Do you think it will still work?” And that is where many scientists will have doubts. I strongly believe that whilst public consultation is very valuable and necessary, scientific knowledge and advice must not be diluted when it comes to making decisions about the future of marine management in New Zealand.

We are entering exciting times with respect to the marine environment. One hopes that in years to come, all New Zealanders will be able to take a short trip to their local marine reserve, and explore an intact and healthy marine ecosystem.

For this vision to become a reality, scientists need to get involved in their local communities and communicate science effectively, so that the public will begin to appreciate that science is definitely something to value, not fear.

Dr Rebecca McLeod is a researcher at the University of Otago’s Marine Science department. She was the recipient of the 2008 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year award.