PCFFA Principles Regarding Marine Protected Areas

PCFFAIntroductory Note: There is no scientific doubt that the world as a whole is facing serious biodiversity loss, as well as a potential extinction crisis, both being driven by rapid climate change, and that serious biodiversity protection and habitat conservation mandates are needed, based on sensible, science-driven solutions.

But unfortunately, some groups are still championing ever more ocean marine protected areas (MPAs) as “the solution” to ocean ecosystem problems that are all too often also resulting in major fisheries declines.

For some groups this has become a form of “magical thinking,” rather than only one of many management tools to be deployed with forethought and guided by good science.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) especially are back in the limelight with the recent publication by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife of its “Marine Protected Area Network Decadal Management Review (2022)” [see: https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/MPAs/Management/Decadal-Review], and even more so under Governor Newsom’s “30 x 30,” Executive Order No. N-82-20 (Oct. 7. 2020), requiring the State of California to “conserve at least 30% of California’s land and coast waters by 2030.”

A similar federal “30% of land and water conserved by 2030” policy mandate appears in President Biden’s January 27, 2021 “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” Sec. 216.

These policies are pursuant to the “Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)” as the international legal instrument for “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources,” ratified by 196 nations, including the U.S. Many groups are advocating for more MPAs in various forms, nationally and internationally.

But few are asking the hard questions about when, how and whether to use MPAs as an ocean ecosystem conservation tool. This is as true today as it was 20 years ago when this PCFFA MPA Policy Statement was first developed. We offer this Policy Statement once again to shift the discussion on the effectiveness of existing, and any need for potential future, MPAs where it belongs—so it’s driven by science, not politics or wishful thinking.  

– Glen Spain, for PCFFA/IFR

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) occur along the coast of California and many other coastal areas of the nation. The sizes, purposes and regulations on use of these areas vary greatly, as do the terms to describe them. Some, for example, have few restrictions, while others may be complete ‘no-take’ areas.

MPAs have garnered much attention recently among researchers and marine advocacy groups as a tool for fishery management, protecting marine habitats or preserving unique marine ecosystems.

While MPAs may offer promise for the conservation and management of marine fisheries and their habitats, much is unknown about what benefit, if any, has been derived from existing MPAs for the conservation and management of marine fish and their habitats (other than in small, localized areas) or what benefit may be derived from the establishment of new MPAs. To date, there has been a great deal of hype, but precious little science.

Although MPAs may offer potential benefits for marine fish resources and their habitats, they may pose a real danger, too, if strict adherence to good science is not maintained regarding their purposes and siting. MPAs, particularly those imposing no-take, could result in vast areas of prime fishing grounds being ‘locked up,’ which could needlessly impact fishery production.

Moreover, no-take MPAs may result in heavier fishing or other activities outside of their boundaries, exacerbating rather than resolving fish resource problems. MPAs by themselves may also create a false sense of security about fishery resources—neither fish nor currents respect artificial boundaries.

In California for example, marine reserves have been in existence for decades, yet little data exists regarding their overall performance. To date, too little funding has been dedicated to ongoing monitoring of these reserves, even in the developing Channel Islands process.

The fishing industry does not support the establishment of any marine reserve without a structure for assessing its performance and the funding for that assessment, nor of any reserve whose establishment is inconsistent with the principles of this document.

To initiate a rational and science-based discussion on MPAs, mindful of the need to conserve and manage fish resources on a sustainable basis, and to protect marine habitats and ecosystems and the fisheries that depend on these fish resources, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) establishes the following principles:

1. No establishment of an MPA shall inhibit sustainable fisheries within that MPA that have negligible impacts on the habitats or species of concern.

2. MPAs are not a substitute for other forms of fishery management, including seasons, quotas, or gear restrictions, nor shall MPAs be a substitute for prohibitions on pollution, dumping or the introduction of exotic species.

3. MPAs shall not be used as a tool to reallocate resource use. Creation of any zones for recreational fishing only, or for dive fishing only, must be balanced by creation of zones of comparable value for commercial fishing only.

4. Planning and management for the marine environment must be done on a regional scale and be catch-based and multiple-use. The planning approach must ensure participation by stakeholders and other interested parties from the beginning. Land use and other non-fishing impacts must also be addressed.

5. Methodologies and criteria for assessing performance of all MPAs must be developed before new MPAs are implemented; this includes funding for performance assessments.

6. The review of the effectiveness of existing MPAs, as well as the siting and establishment of any new MPAs, must include fishing men and women from both the commercial and sport sectors. This is necessary not only because MPAs affect or could affect fishing areas, but more importantly because fishermen have an intimate and working knowledge of the marine environment, including that of many areas of the ocean where there has been no research.

7. A thorough and science-based review needs to take place of all existing marine protected areas along the U.S. Pacific coast to determine their effectiveness for either: a) providing baseline research information; b) protecting critical marine habitats, or c) protecting specific marine fish or organisms. This review should be undertaken by a panel, including marine scientists, appropriate fishery agency representatives, knowledgeable commercial and sport fishermen and knowledgeable marine conservation representatives, and will include a report with recommendations for each existing MPA and no-fishing zone as to its effectiveness and whether there should be any changes in regulations and boundaries, and whether it should be maintained, reduced, expanded or eliminated, and why.

A similar review must be conducted of the types and effectiveness of MPAs in use in other parts of the world to provide the state, scientists and the fishing industry guidance on whether new MPAs should be established offshore in California and other states, and if so, what their objectives should be, their appropriate size and types of regulations for their use. It is important to recognize the uniqueness of the U.S. Pacific Coast when developing objectives. Measures that are appropriate in tropical waters may not be appropriate here.

8. If, after thorough review, there is a decision to proceed with revising current MPAs or establishing new ones, the objectives of each MPA must be stated clearly; i.e., whether it is to provide baseline research, protect habitat or protect specific species, or some combination thereof. Regulations for use of the MPA must be appropriate to the objectives. A reasonable time frame for meeting the MPA’s objectives must be included.

9. The regulation of the types of use to be permitted in each MPA can and should vary depending on the objectives of the MPA, with MPAs established as any one of three or more types, including those to protect habitats, those to protect specific species of marine fish or organisms and those where take is prohibited.

10. Where no-take MPAs may be established, not only must all types of fishing be prohibited, but so too must any unpermitted scientific collection or any other form of removal from within the boundary of the MPA be prohibited. No dumping or introduction of pollutants shall be permitted in any no-take MPA and human access shall be greatly restricted in order to maintain the pristine condition of the MPA and its value for baseline research.

11. In the siting of any new MPAs, factors to be considered shall include the uniqueness of the area, its biological productivity/diversity or special habitats, the human impacts on that area (including fishing, other types of aquatic harvesting or collection, pollution and structural changes such as dumping, artificial reefs or oil rigs). Siting shall be based solely on the evidence regarding the site itself and without regard to proximity of existing parks, marine sanctuaries or research institutions.

12. Recent changes in fishery management practices, fishing effort, and gear types used must be included in consideration of any new MPAs so as not to use MPAs to address problems already addressed by existing fisheries management. The entire existing and proposed web of federal and state fisheries regulations applicable to the area must be considered in designing any new MPA.

13. In the establishment of any new MPAs, careful consideration shall be given to what, if any, impacts the establishment may have on fishing, or the use of certain types of fishing gear, what impacts an MPA may have on fishing effort outside the MPA boundary, and what steps can be taken to mitigate any impacts on fishing from the establishment of an MPA. Any such impacts shall be distributed among fishermen in a fair and equitable manner. Every effort shall be made to protect existing fisheries, consistent with the science-based selection of unique or productive areas deserving of some level of protection under MPA status.

14. Where significant reduction in fisheries is an unavoidable consequence of establishment of an MPA consistent with the above guidelines, funding for the compensation of fishermen in proportion with the reduction of the fishery shall be part of the establishment of the MPA.

15. Recognizing a changing ocean environment and the continuing increase in human knowledge of the marine environment, MPAs shall be subject to adaptive management, with regular reviews conducted of their performance while recognizing that regulatory or protective measures may not have immediate results. Reviews should include assessment of non-fishing factors that inhibit the productivity of an MPA, including non-point source pollution problems. Under an adaptive management program, utilizing experts from the fishery agencies, marine researchers, social scientists and the fishing and conservation community, MPAs should be subject to periodic review of their regulations, boundaries and whether some existing ones should be eliminated and/or new ones established.   

Adopted unanimously by the PCFFA Board, February 2002, with minor non-substantive updates 2023.

Glen Spain is the Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and of its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), as well as their General Legal Counsel. He is also the PFMC-appointed Commercial Fisheries Representative to the PFMC’s Habitat Committee. He can be reached by email at fish1ifr@aol.com and by phone at the PCFFA/IFR Northwest Regional Office: (541) 689-2000.  PCFFA’s website is www.pcffa.org. IFR’s website is www.ifrfish.org.