U.S. No-Fishing MPAs Are Not the Solution

U.S. No-Fishing MPAs Are Not the Solution

By Bill Shedd. AFTCO Chairman & CEO


A conservation-minded angler examines the science behind no-fishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and their role in the U.S. 30x30 plan.



This article is 1 of 2 and covers research on no-fishing marine protected areas. Article 2 on 30x30 policy found here

In January 2021, President Biden issued an executive order to conserve at least 30 percent of America’s land and ocean areas by 2030. It signaled a desire to participate in the global 30x30 initiative. While we remain optimistic about the outcome, with the details still not yet fully revealed, the jury remains out for the recreational fishing community. We continue to look for answers from the federal government on their definition of conservation and if the 30 percent will include the protections currently in place. Will the 30x30 plan prove a great plus for the resource and the sport, or will it include a network of areas that unnecessarily restrict angler access? 

To explore why habitat protection and the goals of 30x30 should not restrict angler access, we have provided a collection of papers, data, models, and analysis from leading fisheries scientists. The following information can best be summarized by these 3 statements: 



1. U.S. No-Fishing MPAs do not Increase Fisheries Productivity 

The science suggests no-fishing MPAs (at times referenced as no-catch MPAs, no-take MPAs, or fully protected MPAs) do not produce a meaningful increase in fishery productivity in the U.S. 

2. Proven U.S. Fisheries Management Does Increase Overall Fisheries Productivity 

Science-based fisheries management is the key to protecting ocean fishery health. Looking at NOAA's data on the status of fishery stocks shows the state of improving U.S. fishery health thanks to effective fisheries management. Fisheries management has rebuilt and continues to rebuild fish stocks in our oceans.

3. Recreational Anglers Support Biodiversity and Habitat Protection 

Recreational anglers understand the need to protect and conserve our fish populations and the habitat they depend on. We support 30 by 30 policies that are not merely aspirational, but that recognize existing management levels/actions that currently afford protections and work to identify additional conservation needs and actions through an objective, science-driven, stakeholder-engaged process to determine the appropriate level of management actions necessary to meet biodiversity conservation goals. 

As you will see, those simple facts are often a matter of perspective. The sportfishing community perspective comes from users of the ocean resource with a storied history of marine conservation. It comes from community members who recreate on, in and around the ocean. That includes a desire to leave our fisheries in a better state for the next generation.   For the author of this article that means donating much of my personal time to a wide range of nonprofit and government-agency conservation efforts.

The topic of no-catch MPA expansion in the U.S. is not new. The policy side of the discussion can be best explored here: Lessons learned from early 30x30 efforts and how to proceed nationally.  There we highlight past issues and findings with California’s failed AB 3030 legislative effort and provide our perspective for a productive 30x30 for America’s 55 million anglers and nature.

In this article we explore why no-fishing MPAs do not belong in the US 30x30 plan. A deep dive into the MPA studies shows that U.S.-based no-catch marine protected areas (MPAs) do not increase fisheries productivity, and that current fisheries management tools are far superior at achieving the goal. Recreational anglers, like other U.S. natural-resource users, are looking forward to a 30x30 plan that meets the needs of our nation and tackles issues such as freshwater runoff, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, and multiple forms of pollution. We do not, however, want to see unnecessary public access restrictions.



The Role of MPAs in the U.S.

What Are MPAs?

"Marine protected areas are defined areas where human activities are managed to protect important natural or cultural resources. There are approximately 1,000 marine protected areas, or MPAs, located throughout the United States. MPAs cover about 26 percent of U.S. waters." — NOAA





MPAs Take Many Forms & Provide Conservation Value 

It is important to state up front not all MPAs are the same. There are many types of MPAs: no-catch, multi-use, etc. This article is focused on discussing what we're calling no-fishing MPAs in the U.S., which are areas zoned for no fishing of any kind, including the restriction of catch and release fishing. In practice, no-fishing MPAs are among many of the most restrictive types.  Other types of MPAs are better suited for the needs of 30x30, and we recognize MPAs play a legitimate conservation and habitat protection role.


When do MPAs improve fisheries?

In terms of fisheries improvements the study when can marine reserves improve fisheries management? best answers this question. "Their successful use requires a case-by-case understanding of the spatial structure of impacted fisheries, ecosystems and human communities. Marine reserves, together with other fishery management tools, can help achieve broad fishery and biodiversity objectives, but their use will require careful planning and evaluation."



No-Fishing MPAs Have Been Shown to Provide Often Insignificant Value

MPAs actual value to fisheries in the U.S. is being oversold by no-fishing MPA advocates. In fact, no-fishing MPAs have been shown to provide often-insignificant value to U.S. fisheries value that pales in comparison to current proven U. S. fisheries-management practices. Yet, many supporters of no-fishing MPAs have used generous funding to find science that draws inaccurate, broad-stroke conclusions that these MPAs benefit fisheries, conclusions often offered to the public as fact. This MPA misrepresentation makes successful U.S. 30x30 development problematic.

Misrepresenting the value of MPAs further inhibits anglers and responsible environmentalists from working together to create the best 30x30 plan possible. More importantly, if exaggerated claims about fully protected MPAs become reality, the actual health and abundance of our U.S. marine fisheries may be worse off, not better. In an investigation of integrating marine protected areas with catch regulation, a group of scientists concluded, “only when a stock is so overfished that it is headed toward extinction does an MPA not lead to lower catches.” See also Integrating scientific guidance into marine spatial planning published in The Royal Society for further peer reviewed science on this topic.

It is important to note that these large scale no fishing zones come at a cost to sustainably managed fisheries. “A consequence of closing an area to fishing is for the fishing effort to move elsewhere, which may have a number of undesirable consequences that in most cases remain unanalyzed.” In fact, there has been modeling that may indicate having many large closed areas would not only complicate conservative fisheries management, but also reduce its productive potential.

Even the recent paper Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate by Sala et al., which MPA advocates are championing to promote the idea of up to 30% of the ocean set aside as "highly protected MPAs",  minimizes its application to U.S. water.  It states, "Here we do not promote MPAs as the best fisheries management tool," and "Notably, if fishery management were to improve globally, the food provisioning case for MPAs would diminish." In the U.S., where fisheries management is second to none, the conclusions drawn in that paper plainly do not apply.





MPAs Should Be Guided by Science Over Symbolism

Significant peer-reviewed science disputes the no-fishing MPA advocacy claims of fisheries benefits, irrespective of management success. It is not only the recreational fishing community that is increasingly alarmed with false claims that MPAs can do more for U.S. fisheries than the science dictates: also, fishery managers and the scientists they rely on are becoming increasingly concerned with this MPA hype.

These concerns range from studies of the fishing closures in no-catch MPAs can actually reduce effective fisheries management and monitoring, to current no-fishing MPAs that show actual benefits far below outcomes predicted by MPA enthusiasts, to problems caused by picking an arbitrary percentage of the ocean to close. In 2004, Australia implemented large scale no-catch MPAs on the Great Barrier Reef with the promise of improved biodiversity, fishery health and productivity.

As of July 1, 2015, a study of actual results from Australia shows MPA effects were far from predicted (Fletcher et al., 2015). Ultimately overall catches and fishery productivity did not increase, but actually decreased. The following quote from this study of a no-fishing MPA is eye opening. “There was no evidence of recovery in total catch levels or any comparative improvement in catch rates within the GBR nine years after implementation. These results are not consistent with the advice to governments that the closures would have minimal initial impacts and rapidly generate benefits to fisheries in the GBR through increased juvenile recruitment and adult spillovers. Instead, the absence of evidence of recovery in catches to date currently supports an alternative hypothesis that where there is already effective fisheries management, the closing of areas to all fishing will generate reductions in overall catches similar to the percentage of the fished area that is closed.” (Fletcher et al., 2015)

Concerns extend beyond the fact that the potential for these far spreading no-fishing zones is nowhere near what is being pushed by no-fishing MPA supporters. In addition to not providing the predicted benefits, no-catch MPAs can also be problematic in reducing effective fisheries management. The paper "Does MPA mean ‘Major Problem for Assessments'? Considering the consequences of place-based management systems" covers this concern in detail. Dr. John Field serves as the program lead for the Southwest Fisheries Science Center's Fisheries Ecology Division in support of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.


“Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been increasingly proposed, evaluated and implemented as management tools for achieving both fisheries and conservation objectives in aquatic ecosystems. However, there is a challenge associated with the application of MPAs in marine resource management with respect to the consequences to traditional systems of monitoring and managing fisheries resources.”(Field et al., 2006)


An increasing number of scientists are concerned that closing a percentage of the ocean to fishing can be problematic. In the series of papers “Dangerous Targets,” (Agardy et al., 2016) points out how scientific evidence is sometimes overshadowed by conservation strategies MPA advocates tout, noting “[(MPA)] targets can sometimes be dangerous and counter-productive”.


Goal of 100% Fisheries Management in Our Oceans

Recently, these target strategies often include a goal of protecting 50% of the ocean by 2050. In terms of fisheries management, a coast with no MPAs but rather governed by proper and sustainable fisheries management is preferable to a coast with 50% no-fishing MPA coverage, where the remaining 50% is subject to overfishing and degradation. To that end, we seek a more ambitious target of 100% effective fisheries management, utilizing MPAs only when demonstrably appropriate and the most effective approach in conserving biodiversity, enhancing productivity, and maintaining ocean health.

Science and Data Must Define the Need for Intervention

If a parent or grandparent is to be denied access to take their children or grandchildren fishing, there must be real and well-defined reasons. For many, fishing is a multi-generational and multi-cultural activity that provides both a means of recreation and sustenance. The 55 million recreational anglers in the U.S. will not stand for a “just because” explanation, especially where there is so little proven benefit to the fishery.

On the other hand, if proven science shows for a given fishery that conventional management cannot work, and that limiting angler access is truly necessary to resolve a problem, then the sportfishing community would lead an effort to remove anglers from a given area until science declares the problem resolved. Examples of recreational anglers supporting their own removal from fisheries in need of help are West Coast groundfish closures, the Florida snook closure in 2011-2012 after a severe cold-weather die off, closures of salmon runs in poor years, and the recent four-month Western Dry Rocks Seasonal Closure off Key West Florida to protect an important spawning area.


The Influence of Money

No-fishing MPA advocates have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support their perspective, much of it focused on misleading information. California offers an unfortunate case study. Millions of dollars were spent to influence California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), an effort that initially went into effect in 2010.

Based on data compiled by Nils Stolpe of Fishnet USA over the course of 10 years, ENGOs granted 13 million dollars just towards implementing the MLPA process in a “public-private” partnership with the state of California. That, and other money, not only supported a no-fishing MPA perspective but also led to a one-sided use of the science; an unfair balance of power; nonproductive angler restrictions; minimal actual fishery benefits; and massive distrust and turmoil in the California MLPA process.

More background on the California MLPA process and its inability to include the sportfishing community can be found at Seeking Consensus on Designing Marine Protected Areas: Keeping the Fishing Community Engaged. Additionally, the California DFW has provided an MPA Final Impact Report, and some salient public comments included can be found here (pp. 115-147) and here (pp. 731-848).  

In addition to studies slanted towards a no-catch perspective, no-fishing MPA advocates have provided funding for coordinated marketing and lobbying efforts to educate the public and decision makers on the value of MPAs that include no fishing zones. But that educational campaign consistently fails to mention that no-fishing MPAs rank well below comprehensive fisheries management in importance. Yet, this pro no-fishing MPA campaign — especially as it relates to fisheries — has misled politicians and other decision makers into thinking no-catch MPAs can most effectively fix fisheries.

MPAs will suffer along with the rest of the ocean as the planet warms. Overstating the benefits of MPAs takes focus off other proven and more important measures to protect ocean fish stocks and keep them healthy. In this sense, the pro no-fishing MPA campaign again provides a negative rather than a positive impact to our fisheries.

Recreational Anglers Fund Conservation

While no-fishing MPA advocates focus their efforts on a number of places, including promotion of no-catch MPAs, recreational anglers remain laser focused on fishery improvements. Through federal excise taxes on fishing equipment and motorboat fuel, fishing license fees and direct donations, anglers contribute nearly $1.5 billion annually to fund fisheries conservation and habitat restoration.

A Matter of Perspective

To better understand the MPA debate, it is essential to be aware of two guiding perspectives, which operate with very different outlooks and goals. No-fishing MPA advocates are often guided by a preservation perspective which suggests a belief that humans should be kept separate from nature. We support the notion of conservation, which prioritizes using natural resources efficiently and sustainably. A more detailed comparison of the perspectives can be found here



MPA Issues Needing Clarification

U.S. Fisheries Are Not in Decline

Among the misleading information MPA advocates use to justify no-fishing MPAs as a fishery protection tool is the implication that U.S. fisheries are in decline despite the efforts of fisheries managers. There was a time, more than 30 years ago, when this was true, but it clearly is not true today.

According to the 2019 NOAA Report to Congress, “the number of stocks on the overfishing list reached an all-time low.” Still, no-take MPA enthusiasts continue to pretend U.S. fish stocks are in big trouble. In recent years numerous U.S. saltwater fish stocks have not only remained healthy but are improving. This is due to effective fishery management practices such as fish hatcheries, size and quantity limits, catch-and-release fishing, seasonal closures, temporary area closures, gear restrictions, total allowable catch limits, limited entry, and more. Permanent MPAs played no meaningful role in rebuilding any of the 44 fish stocks rebuilt since 2000. The NOAA report also highlights that 93% of fish stocks in U.S. waters are no longer subject to overfishing.





No-fishing MPA advocates conflate the real global decline of fisheries elsewhere with what is happening here in U.S. waters. Marine fisheries management in the U.S. is second to none. Our Regional Fishery Management Councils, NOAA Fisheries, state fish and game departments, and current fishery-management practices have demonstrated how to build healthy fisheries. A 30x30 plan cannot be approached with a single broad stroke but will require thoughtful implementation in the U.S., differing from the high seas, and in countries with little effective fisheries management. When lumping the U.S. with other countries with little to no effective regulations, we feel what's referred to as an “illusion of natural resource preservation.” The phrase coined by Berlik et al., 2002 and related to the ocean by Helvey et al., 2017 refers to the displacement of natural resource use from one area with efficient and responsible regulation to areas with little to no regulation causing a larger impact on the environment rather than a benefit. 

Domestically 30x30 should include recognition of the successful management tools developed in U.S. fisheries. "Policy-makers need to be mindful of and evaluate the challenges and trade-offs among the full range of impacts, including those beyond their jurisdictions, as part of the decision-making process." (Helvey et al., 2017)





Do No-Fishing MPAs Create a Spillover Effect? 

The scientific community does not agree on the fisheries value of "spillover effects" of no-fishing MPAs to fisheries. The spillover effect refers to the recruitment and migration of fish from no-fishing MPAs to fishable areas. Contrary to what no-fishing MPA enthusiasts suggest, there is no scientific consensus on this issue. It depends in part on which group of marine scientists you are talking to (preservationist or conservationist), and most importantly, it depends on the fishery in question and how well it is being managed.

Current science indicates empirical evidence of spillover effects remains unclear in the context of whether spillover is compensation for access lost to no-take MPAs (Manfredi Di Lorenzo, Joachim Claudet, Paolo Guidetti, 2016). Other studies suggest that no-catch MPA spillover effects may not be significant in temperate waters: “We conclude that spillover effects are not a universal consequence of siting MPAs in temperate waters and they are related to the distribution of habitats inside and around MPAs.” (Forcada et al., 2009).

MPAs can Increase Resident Fish Populations Within the MPA

Both preservationist-and conservationist-minded scientists agree that if you create and effectively enforce a no-take MPA, there will be some sedentary fish species and those with small home ranges — those with little or no migration outside the MPA — whose populations will grow within that MPA area. Nevertheless, the need for a full restriction of anglers in order to achieve similar results within a MPA is often not needed due to the low fisheries impact of recreational fishing.

Additionally, where there is a defined fisheries need, one alterative to a no-fishing MPA is a multi-use MPA that allows for catch and release fishing. Cooke et al., 2006 began to explore the conservation value of catch and release in is catch-and-release recreational angling compatible with no-take marine protected areas?

The Spillover Effect for Resident Fish

Importantly, there remains no universal consensus in the marine-science community on the value of the spillover effect even for these resident fish. That phenomenon depends on several variables such as how well the targeted fishery is being managed, larval flow and more. Again, population modeling by Carey R. Gilliard and Ray Hilborn, 2008, has shown that depending on these and other variables, fully protected MPAs can decrease catch rates in the remaining fishable areas.

The Spillover Effect for Mobile Fish

Finally, no-take MPAs have little impact either inside or outside the MPA on fish that travel more widely. Le Quesne et al., 2009 concluded: “Our model confirmed previous results: closed areas do not improve the yield of populations that are optimally managed or underexploited and, as mobility increases, optimum closure size increases.”

Will MPAs Increase U.S. Fishery Productivity?

From Dr. Hilborn’s 2018 paper Are MPAs Effective?, “MPAs and area closures in general, do not reduce fishing effort, they only move it elsewhere and effort displacement has long been recognized as a result of MPA establishment or closed areas” (Halpern et al., 2004; Hiddink et al., 2006; Greenstreet et al., 2009). The bottom line is that large no-take MPAs may increase overall abundance of resident fish within MPAs, but if overfishing is not intense (the case in most U.S. fisheries), then MPAs simply move effort so you end up with more fish inside the closed area, but fewer outside unless the total harvest is also reduced. In other words, in the U.S. we do not need no-fishing MPAs to increase fishery productivity.



Closing Thoughts

For years advocates have oversold the fishery management value of MPAs with large no-fishing areas. This article helps tell the other side of the story. The concept regarding MPAs being the panacea for managing fisheries is a myth.

In this article we provided links to some of the primary scientific literature demonstrating the real cost of no-fishing MPAs to sustainable fisheries. It identifies the science showing that large U.S. no-fishing zones do not increase fisheries productivity, but that current U.S. fisheries management does. It addresses several inaccuracies in claims used by no-fishing MPA advocates. Finally, it points out the vast amount of money that has been spent to keep the no-fishing MPA myth alive.

In its companion piece on past 30x30 learnings we point out how the false claims about no-fishing MPAs are problematic not just from a fisheries science perspective but from a policy perspective as well. When the 55 million members of the U.S. recreational fishing community are prevented access to public waters without demonstrable scientific justification, they understandably lose trust. That then makes it challenging for all to work together to create the best 30x30 plan possible.

Our hope is to remind readers of the true fisheries value of current fisheries management in the U.S. so that we can agree to a positive path forward for 30x30. We note the value of understanding the difference between a conservationist perspective and a preservationist perspective. We conclude that environmentalists and politicians need to look at the full range of science and work together with anglers and outdoorsmen and women to protect our wild lands and waters while also protecting the public's reasonable access to those resources.



Additional References


MPA Definitions

No-Fishing MPAs

The most fishing-restrictive forms of MPAs are often referred to as no-take, no-catch, strictly protected, highly protected or fully protected MPAs. The most publicized scientific work on MPA effects center around no-take MPAs. We often refer to this category of MPA as no-fishing MPAs in this document because they frequently go so far as preventing even catch-and-release fishing. Full fishing restriction MPAs have the greatest negative impact on public access to fish recreationally. 


Other Forms of MPAs 

There are many other types of MPAs. At times referred to multi-use MPAs, marine conservation areas, marine sanctuaries, marine parks and marine national monuments. These are the most common forms of MPAs in U.S. waters. This article does not examine the broader conservation value of multi-use MPAs in U.S. waters.  We do however note that when executed appropriately, MPAs can play an important role in habitat protection while also allowing for responsible fishing access.


This is article 1 of 2 in our in-depth 30x30 series. 

1. No-Fishing MPAs Are Not the Solution 

2Lessons Learned From Early 30x30 Efforts - Proceeding Nationally