by Nick Lakoff, Certified Scuba Instructor
In 2007 I booked a trip to the Jardines de la Reina, an Archipelago of Islands just off the coast of Cuba. Everytime I had been diving in Cuba I had asked the diving instructors where I was staying what was the best place to dive in Cuba. After they customarily joked “Well here of course!”, they then would tell me with a nostalgic glint in their eyes “The Jardines de la Reina”. I spent the week on a liveaboard and did 16 dives in 6 days and they were without a doubt the best dives I have had since becoming a diver in 1989.
The Jardines were declared a National Park in 1996 and a strict no catch policy is in effect for the entire 2200 KM2 of its territory. Sport fishing is catch and release only and limited lobster fishing is allowed outside the outer edges of the park limits. Since its creation the fish population inside the park has increased, by conservative estimates, 30 to 50%. On my dives in the Jardines there were fish everywhere, great big schools of them, so large that the sun would be blocked out as they passed overhead. Tarpons, Jacks, snappers, turtles, groupers where all there in great numbers but most telling of all, there were sharks on every dive we did. Their presence indicated how healthy these reefs had become in the 15 years + that the park had prevented commercial fishing from harvesting in the area. This park covers a relatively small area of the Cuban coastline but the fish, now here in abundance, are repopulating the Southern coastline of Cuba.
Since commercial fishing started in the 1950’s conservative estimates made by fisheries experts around the world state that we have exhausted approximately 40% of all the fish species in the oceans today. Commercial fishing has also greatly progressed from those early days where fishing boats can now catch fish anywhere in the world, in most any conditions, at depths that were once unfathomable. We have become so good at catching fish that they don’t stand a chance if we continue to catch fish at the same rates as we have been doing for the last 60+ years. Current projections using fishing fleet data from around the world on number of boat and capacity tell us that we could head to global fish stock collapse by 2035 if not sooner. That’s a little more than 20 years away. Although numbers vary per region, it is estimated that 1 in 4 people worldwide depend on fish as protein in their diets which translates to 1.5 billion people. Of course many more people than that eat fish around the globe. It’s not difficult to foresee that if stocks collapse what the ramifications might be. This is where Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) can help slow this trend, even reverse it and help avert a disaster.
Marine Protected areas were first suggested over a hundred years ago by French born naturalist Henri de Puyjalon. Currently in the world we protect 10 to 15 % (0.10 to 0.15) of land areas with various parks and preserves. Land covers about one third of the planet we live on. In comparison we now protect approximately a little more than one percent (1.17% as of 2010) of the world’s ocean which covers two thirds of our planet. One thing that is encouraging is that the creation of MPA’s is now reaching levels of growth first encountered by land protected areas in the 1990’s. Just recently Australia set designated more coastal waters as protected creating the largest network of marine sanctuaries in the world. As of this writing 36% of Australia’s coastal waters are now protected.
One of the benefits of MPA’s is the “Spill over effect” caused by the restriction on commercial fishing in their territory. A good example of this is the Te Awaatu Channel Marine Reserve in New Zealand. Rock Lobster in New Zealand was threatened by overfishing so a network of no take zones were created in Fiordland on the South Western tip of the South Island. Scientific surveys conducted in 1999, 2001,2003,2005 2010 showed that Rock Lobster population not only increased substantially in the protected areas but also in areas outside them as well. Given the chance to breed and reproduce without the pressure of fishing the lobsters grew so abundant that they started moving outside the reserves limits, demonstrating a “spill over effect”. This phenomenon has been observed and recorded in most MPA’s around the world and is at the heart of the conservationists argument that more areas need to be set aside in order to allow fish stocks to recuperate along with better worldwide management of fisheries. Another important economic benefit of MPA’s is their impact on tourism growth providing revenues and jobs for local populations. Combined with education programs on conservation communities can be empowered to play a major role in reversing the toll of overfishing and ocean habitat.
MPA’s a major part of the solution to keep our Oceans healthy so future generations can profit from its beauty and its bounty.