Some of the world's most vulnerable marine habitats are being failed by the conservation orders put in place to protect them.
A new study, published online today in Nature, shows that a majority of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) do not fulfil their conservation goals. An international team surveyed over 2000 species of reef fishes inside and outside MPAs in 40 countries. They found that in most cases, marine wildlife populations inside parks or reserves are no different to those found in fished areas.
Dr Trevor Willis from the University of Portsmouth, said that the results demonstrated that many MPAs are protected only in name and described them as 'paper parks', where in many cases it was business as usual. He said it is unsurprising that the study found little recovery in fish populations.
"Planning that gives precedence to stakeholder opinion -- rather than the protecting target species -- may work politically but will not have any real benefits in the water. Marine reserves or parks that allow any form of fishing, that are inadequately enforced and too small to encompass the natural range of the most vulnerable species are likely to fail as protection measures."
Dr Willis said the study challenges to environmental planners and agencies to improve.
"Marine habitats are under increasing pressure from fishing, development and pollution and the world's coastal regions are vulnerable and increasingly degraded. Effective marine conservation measures must include a complete ban on fishing rather than restrictions and this must be effectively policed and enforced. They must have long term goals because reversing the effects of humankind can take years and they must be of significant size to make a difference."
The study showed that effective MPAs had on average eight times more large fishes, nine times more groupers, and 14 times more sharks than fished areas.
Professor Graham Edgar of the University of Tasmania, highlighted the fact that some MPAs were working extremely well, had massive numbers of large fishes and extremely high conservation value but they were in the minority.
He said: "At present, coastal zoning maps are confusing, with the few conservation gems hidden amongst protected areas that are ineffective because of inadequate regulations or poor enforcement. We hope that this work will focus attention on the criteria for MPAs that provide real protection to coastal ecosystems."
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