The Shark Research That Upended Marine Conservation

Efforts to preserve ocean life are meaningless if governments don't enforce standards of protection

Four researchers equipped with nets and buckets stand in shallow water, surrounded by seaweed.
Researchers collect marine organisms from Goose Island as part of a larger project studying the biodiversity along British Columbia’s central coast. Photo by Ocean Networks Canada
Hakai Magazine Logo
This story was originally published as “Marine Protected Areas: May or May Not Include Actual Protection” by our friends at Hakai Magazine. It has been reprinted here with permission.

Sarah Dudas is in a race against time. Before high tide returns, she and her fellow researchers are determined to survey the marine life clinging to the intertidal zone of Goose Island—a small island off the remote central coast of British Columbia. While charismatic sea otters bask and torpedo in the kelp nearby, Dudas kneels down and squints at the wildlife before her: mussels the size of apple seeds and crustaceans so small they could hide under a dime. She wears chest waders, a toque embroidered with the likeness of a bright-orange rockfish, and a pencil behind her ear. She is the significant-areas program head for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the mother of two young girls, ages six and eight. Working out here for three weeks—away from them—is hard but worth it.

“This is my church,” Dudas says. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Knowing that this goes toward conservation for the next generation is why I do this work.”

Goose Island—part of the Goose Group—is ringed by reefs, islets, and shallow waters that support diverse fish populations, which in turn attract high concentrations of seabirds. Harbour seals haul out here during pupping season. Above the sandy bays and tidal flats, a curtain of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar hides the boggy interior. Although the Goose Group and surrounding waters were declared part of a provincial marine conservancy in 2008, there is still no published management plan.

Dudas and her colleagues must wrap up soon and return to the Vector, a nearly forty-metre Canadian Coast Guard vessel waiting just offshore. Their work here, part of an expedition to study both intertidal and deep-water ecosystems along the central coast, may help establish new marine protected areas (MPAs). Canada has committed to protecting 10 percent of its territorial waters by this year as part of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets. The convention has been ratified by 196 countries, making it a truly global push for marine conservation.

This sounds like a win for politicians, coastal communities, and ecosystems alike. But, just as governments around the world announce new MPAs, troubling new research is raising questions about their effectiveness. Do MPAs deliver what’s advertised—protection of the marine environment—or are they little more than “paper parks” amounting to protection in name only? Time will tell. For now, the tide is rising. An opportunity is closing. Dudas focuses in.

Clearly, a marine protected area is a region of the ocean—including the marine life therein—set aside to be preserved in its natural state and kept safe from human exploitation, right? If only it were that simple. MPAs can involve a spectrum of objectives from allowing sustainable fishing and gathering to protecting biodiversity to conserving sites of scientific or cultural interest. In the end, unless it is created and managed in accordance with globally recognized standards, an MPA is whatever a particular jurisdiction decides it will be.

Modern governments have been late to the cause of marine conservation. Back in the nineteenth century, scientists were questioning whether the marine environment—and fisheries in particular—could or should be managed. Reports about the scarcity of fish from all around the United Kingdom’s coasts were sparking concern. Conventional wisdom (and a Royal Commission) held that there were plenty of fish in the sea, but there was no scientific consensus. In 1883, at the International Fisheries Exhibition in London, naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley declared: “I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case, to be useless.”

Despite this sentiment, concern about falling fish stocks continued to grow. This led to a ten-year experiment, launched in 1886, involving trawling restrictions in the Firth of Forth estuary and Saint Andrews Bay in Scotland. Results were mixed and scientists disagreed on the outcome. Even as late as 1919, some influential British scientists were still denying that human activity could exhaust the sea’s bounty.

But fish-conservation and marine-management techniques have been in use since long before the Victorian era—European royalty have been controlling access to fish in rivers and streams since the Middle Ages. King Philip IV of France was so worried about falling fish stocks that he decreed his realm’s first fisheries ordinance in 1289. In the South Pacific, Polynesians observed their waitui tabu (prohibited zone) fisheries-management system for untold generations. The tabu dictated who could catch what kind of seafood where and when. British explorer James Cook brought back news of the tabu system in the eighteenth century, and the word taboo has been a part of the English language ever since. Here on British Columbia’s central coast, Indigenous peoples have been using a diversity of conservation strategies and techniques for millennia, such as building clam gardens (rock-walled intertidal beach terraces), to both enhance and manage their marine environments.

In the twenty-first century, our understanding of fisheries management has come a long way, yet global fish stocks are on the verge of collapse. Two-thirds of predatory fish have vanished from the world’s oceans over the past century, according to one recent study, and the loss is accelerating. Clearly, knowledge does not equal practice. Is there a way forward? Many believe MPAs could be a big part of the answer.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. It has more than 1,200 government and NGO members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries. According to the IUCN, a protected area is defined, recognized, and managed to achieve the long-term conservation of nature, natural resources, and cultural values. This definition makes it difficult to square with industrial resource extraction. Yet some MPAs still allow commercial fishing in an area supposedly set aside for protection.

MPAs range in size from Marae Moana, a 2-million-square-kilometre zone in the South Pacific, to a tiny 0.4-hectare section of British Columbia’s Echo Bay Marine Provincial Park. Today, nearly 17,000 MPAs cover 7.5 percent of the world’s marine environment. Research reveals that they can produce abundance—both ecological and economic—and social benefits when designed and managed properly. The revived tabu system in Fiji, for example, reestablished local stewardship over the ecosystem, a change that increased local biodiversity, fish and shellfish stocks, and income. In the Irish Sea, a small protected area off the Isle of Man was declared a no-trawl zone in 1989 and was closely monitored for fourteen years. Over that time, researchers found that the overall density of scallops was nearly five times higher in the protected zone. An adjacent unprotected area also saw an increase in scallop stocks, likely through what is known as the spillover effect. Engaging communities, industries, governments, and scientists has consistently proven to be the most important factor in the design of successful MPAs. One of the leading causes of failure is lack of surveillance, which results in poor enforcement and compliance. The evidence is clear: designating MPAs is not enough—they must be managed, patrolled, and controlled.

Another study surveyed MPAs with an eye toward determining the best type for reversing the global degradation of marine life. The authors found that no-take marine reserves—the MPAs at the most protective end of the spectrum, where extractive activities are prohibited—are best for restoring and preserving biodiversity in the long term. Studies have shown that fish biomass in no-take reserves is, on average, 670 percent greater than in neighbouring unprotected areas. And, compared with partially protected MPAs, no-take zones have 343 percent more biomass. Partial protection has some value by restricting specific activities—like trawling, which results in habitat destruction—but is generally less effective overall, the authors found. They concluded that, while MPAs will not solve all the ocean’s problems, they do provide “outstanding ecological and economic benefits within and beyond their boundaries.”

Marine protected area—three seemingly simple, straightforward words that, in the minds of the general public, mean “mission accomplished” when applied to a map of the ocean. Much of the scientific and conservation communities share this view. But, as governments around the world rush to announce the establishment of new MPAs to meet their 2020 Aichi targets, a chance discovery by a shark researcher is upending that perception.

Manuel Dureuil is a postdoctoral fellow at the Worm Lab for Marine Conservation Biology at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, and president of Sharks of the Atlantic Research and Conservation Centre, a local nonprofit. For the past ten years, the thirty-four-year-old has been researching elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, and skates), focusing on conservation ecology and fisheries science. He wants the world to know that these remarkable species are in urgent need of protection.

Sharks are both formidable survivors and sensitive biodiversity indicators, he says. They appeared more that 400 million years ago—well before the first dinosaurs—and have long played a key role in maintaining the health and balance of marine ecosystems. But many species of sharks have been driven to near extinction through overfishing and finning, the cruel and wasteful practice of cutting off a shark’s fins and discarding its body for the sake of shark-fin soup. We are killing them faster than they can reproduce. Some populations have declined by more than 90 percent, and their loss is likely resulting in drastic—and possibly irreversible—damage to marine ecosystems. It was Dureuil’s shark research that led to a jaw-dropping conclusion about Europe’s MPAs and landed him his first publication in the esteemed journal Science.

What started as an investigation into North Atlantic shark populations unearthed a troubling fact about Europe’s MPAs. European Union territorial waters, the largest maritime territory on Earth, is a global hotspot of industrial fishing and has an extensive network of MPAs (29 percent of the total area). The trend Dureuil was seeing exploded his expectation that those MPAs were effective in preserving and protecting species sensitive to destructive fishing, such as sharks, skates, and rays. To help make sense of his findings, he teamed up with colleagues at the Worm lab and Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel to gather and crunch the data and draw conclusions from the results. Using newly available satellite sensors that allow fine-scale, real-time quantification of industrial fishing activity from space, the team studied 727 European MPAs. What they discovered was shocking.

“We found that 59 percent of MPAs are commercially trawled, and average trawling intensity across MPAs is at least 1.4-fold higher compared with non-protected areas,” the authors reported in Science. And, in those heavily trawled areas, the abundance of sensitive species decreased by nearly 70 percent compared to areas with low trawling intensity.

Dureuil and his coauthors were not necessarily surprised that fishing was taking place in MPAs—it was the intensity of fishing that caused alarm. They concluded that widespread industrial exploitation of MPAs in Europe undermines global conservation targets and casts a shadow over protected areas worldwide.

A variety of MPA types exist in European Union waters, and due to the supremacy of the EU Common Fishing Policy, which sets quotas for member states, many do not address commercial fisheries. Yet all 727 of the MPAs studied were registered in the IUCN’s World Database on Protected Areas and counted toward international biodiversity-conservation targets. Over 50 percent did not report a management plan, over 90 percent were not classified according to IUCN criteria, and over 99 percent had no information on no-take areas. The result? Scientists, conservationists, and the general public were astonished to learn that endangered and critically endangered species were all more than five times more abundant outside MPAs.

Europe’s MPAs give a false sense of security about government action to protect the oceans. Dureuil and his colleagues revealed that simply declaring a stretch of water an MPA has little benefit for the species in most need of protection. To truly protect and preserve marine environments, they recommend MPAs require better reporting, management planning, independent vetting of standards, and a commitment to enforce those standards.

“You really can’t blame the fishermen,” Dureuil says, adding that what they are doing is completely legal. But it goes to show how something can look very “green,” appear to protect vast areas, but give a false sense of security. “I think we should not call something a marine protected area [if it doesn’t] exclude harmful fishing practices.”

Not all MPAs necessarily need to ban activities like local, small-scale, sustainable fishing, Dureuil explains, they just need to prohibit destructive and unsustainable industrial fishing. Canada, for its part, recently announced a ban on industrial activities—including bottom trawling, oil-and-gas development, mining, and dumping—inside federally designated MPAs. MPAs can work very well for both marine environments and the local human populations that depend on them, he says. “We just have to have guidelines and follow them.”

The guidelines, he says, should be those of the IUCN.

No country has a longer coastline than Canada. At 243,042 kilometres, it is twelve times longer than that of the United States. In 2016, Canada announced a plan to protect 10 percent of its vast marine and coastal areas as part of its 2020 Aichi targets. At the time, less than one percent was protected. The National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Areas Standards was convened. The panel consulted experts and groups with a stake in the process, researched best practices, and delivered a final report in September 2018. Among its recommendations were ensuring respect for Indigenous knowledge and practices and the establishment of Indigenous protected areas in addition to MPAs. When it came to adopting standards, the panel was clear: Canada should adopt IUCN standards and guidelines for all marine protected areas.

In his response to the report, Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s minister of fisheries, oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, committed the federal government to implementing protection standards in its new MPAs but did not specifically cite the IUCN’s standards. A spokesperson for the minister later clarified Canada’s position: “The government has adopted protection standards that are consistent with IUCN recommendations.”

International agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity exist only at the whim of the governments of the day. Look no further than the announced withdrawal of the United States from the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. Yet these agreements, and the standards they set, are vital because they offer a way to hold governments accountable. While it is significant that Canada has adopted standards that are “consistent with” IUCN recommendations for MPAs, this falls short of a commitment to adhere to the IUCN’s Global Conservation Standards.

Canada has resolved to meet the most important condition for MPA success: engaging those most affected—Indigenous groups, local communities, and fishers. Mindful that a leading cause of failure is lack of enforcement, Canada has pledged to invest more than $50 million in the national fisheries enforcement program and hire 100 new fishery officers nationwide.

Stephen Woodley, a member of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and an intervener on Canada’s national advisory panel, worked to ensure that the government would adhere to IUCN standards. “I always want the language to be stronger and our commitment to nature conservation to be greater,” he says of Canada’s guidelines. “This is not perfect with me, but I can live with it. Proof is in actions.”

Around the world, those concerned with marine conservation are already looking beyond 2020 and the 10 percent Aichi targets. In 2016, the IUCN joined scientists in calling for a new and more ambitious goal—the full protection of at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. This is what scientists now deem necessary to reverse the damage already done, to increase the planet’s resilience to climate change, and to leave us with any hope of passing on a healthy, sustainable marine environment to future generations. It is this duty—this hope—that calls researchers like Sarah Dudas to remote intertidal zones far from home.

Back on Goose Island, the tide is high. It’s time to go. Dudas and her colleagues have packed their gear and specimens for the short ride to the bright red-and-white Canadian Coast Guard vessel standing by to take them to the next research site. During their voyage of discovery, they will bring back hard, scientific data from British Columbia’s remote central coast—evidence that could make the case for future MPAs.

One of the boats on hand to ferry the researchers and their gear back to the waiting ship is operated by Robert Johnson, a Heiltsuk watchman. The Coastal Guardian Watchmen are a network of Indigenous people who monitor, steward, and protect their traditional territories.

Once all the gear and passengers are aboard, Johnson offers coffee, adjusts his baseball cap, and settles in behind the wheel. Like other members of the Heiltsuk Nation, he grew up on the water. He has watched outsiders come and go and use and abuse his people’s traditional territory for much of his life. He has watched well-meaning scientists and government people pass through too.

“These areas are all shellfish gardens and part of our trapline systems,” Johnson says of the intertidal zone. He was brought up on the cockles, geoducks, herring roe, and seaweed found here. For the Heiltsuk, traplines are territories that have been passed down through hereditary lines and come with rights and responsibilities related to stewardship of the land and water. “These family rights are still honoured today.”

When it comes to designating new protected areas, Johnson wants to ensure they respect Indigenous peoples’ territories and cultures. People have been a part of this marine ecosystem for a very long time, he says. At a village site on nearby Triquet Island, researchers recently found artifacts that have been radiocarbon dated to around 14,000 years—making it one of the oldest human settlements in North America.

If local involvement is one of the keys to the success of MPAs, then the Hakai Lúxvbálís Conservancy, which covers Goose Island, is off to a good start. Created through an agreement between British Columbia and the Heiltsuk Nation, it acknowledges that Indigenous peoples have been a part of this ecosystem since at least the last ice age. Industrial fishing—by and for those who live far away—is a relatively new problem.

Whatever promises are made elsewhere, Johnson doesn’t wonder who will ultimately be left to keep an eye on things around here. Even if the government doesn’t get around to publishing a management plan or stepping up monitoring and enforcement, he and his fellow watchmen will be on the job, working to preserve and protect the natural world. Because these beaches, these islands, and the water in between provide more than his subsistence. This is his ancestors’ home.

This story was reprinted with permission from Hakai Magazine.

Brian Payton
Brian Payton is the award-winning author of Shadow of the Bear, The Ice Passage, and the national bestselling novel The Wind Is Not a River. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Canadian Geographic. He lives on Vancouver Island, BC.