The conservation benefits of marine sanctuaries are very well established, and there is increasing evidence and acceptance of the important role they can play as the ‘missing piece of the puzzle’ in managing our fisheries.
However, the debate often then focused on what the impact might be on recreational fishermen. Fishing lobby groups raise the concern that fishers will no longer visit areas, and this will have devastating impacts.
See this media article from the rezoning of Ningaloo Marine Park when the level of marine sanctuary protection was raised to 34% of the park,
Recreational fishing lobby group Recfishwest expressed fears that local businesses would suffer because anglers would no longer visit the area.
So with the benefit of hindsight, what really happened?
Fortunately, research was undertaken to look into the issue. What researchers found was that although there was a level of perceived dissatisfaction about the sanctuaries amongst recreational fishing tourists in the years after they were created, this dissatisfaction was not affecting their visitor experience. In fact, visitor satisfaction ratings amongst these visitors were over 90%, nor did it affect their intent to visit again.
Also, in Exmouth there was dissatisfaction with the process of establishing sanctuaries, but not with the sanctuaries themselves and there was no drop in visitation of the marine parks by locals.
The research also showed that of the 90,000 visitors to the region each year, only about 30,000 fish. Of these, it is difficult to determine how many visit primarily to fish, and for how many it is one of a number of reasons to visit the region. There is lots more information in the report including an analysis of the experience for ‘wilderness campers’.
Visitor numbers at Ningaloo continue to grow each year, and people still fish.
The research at Ningaloo is repeated elsewhere where world class marine sanctuaries have been created. Studies since the Great Barrier Reef was zoned to 33% marine sanctuaries show similar results. Whilst some specific user groups did face change, 70% of recreational fishermen interviewed reported no change or an increase in the fishing experience after the rezoning to 33% marine sanctuaries.
A major study published in 2010 into the environmental, social and economic effects of rezoning the Great Barrier Reef found significant conservation benefits but also net-economic benefits, and that boat registrations had been unaffected by the rezoning – suggesting fears of impacts on boat sales to fishermen were not realised.
As a final example, one from a 30 year old marine reserve in New Zealand. Some would argue that Ningaloo and GBR are anomalies because they were already tourism destination. However, Rodney in NZ was not a tourism destination prior to the establishment of the Goat Island Marine Sanctuary. When the marine reserve was established in 1975 the headlines read “Nothing to do at Goat Island Bay Anymore”. However, a recent study found that the sanctuary now brings in around $18.6m per annum in additional income to the local region and supports a number of full time jobs.
Fishing continues as a major industry, but the large snapper and crayfish that can be seen from the rocks, or snorkeling, bring in thousands of tourists a year. It is a success story of economic diversification through marine conservation.
So I think we can conclude that available evidence shows that fears about the economic impacts of marine sanctuaries, and their impact on recreational fishing experiences, are largely unfounded.
Beyond that, it is worth considering the economic and social impact of overfishing, or even of declining fish populations within the bounds of what is considered acceptable exploitation by fisheries managers.
The recent cuts to the Western Rock Lobster industry in Western Australia where the fleet has been halved have had serious consequence, but the reason was not marine sanctuaries but an unexplained drop in larval recruitment, but probably due to widespread overfishing of breeding adults as the fishery was allowed to maintain catch levels by fishing into deeper waters.
Similarly, the scale fish wetline fisheries on the west coast have all but disappeared from many areas, and the recreational experience is being reduced by seasonal bans and reducing availability of large fish. Not to mention the impacts on dive tourism of not having the experience of seeing these fish available. I don’t know of any studies into these impacts.