Dear MPA News:
I was interested to read comments published in MPA News Vol. 4, No. 7 (February 2003) on process and achievements associated with the new Victorian MPA system, particularly the recognition that an exceptional system of MPAs could be achieved without consensus amongst stakeholders. The need for an appropriate education campaign in this situation was stressed.

During the past decade, much has been spoken and written about the importance of consensus and “bottom up” approaches when formulating successful MPAs, authoritative “top down” approaches being largely discredited. However, I would like to see this contention being rigorously re-examined. I suspect that education and the active prevention of poaching play much larger roles in the success or otherwise of MPAs, and that prolonged search for consensus may in fact be harmful in many cases. In my experience, the most successful MPAs (Leigh in New Zealand; Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; Maria Island in Tasmania) were declared in the face of opposition from local resource users, but over time the benefits of these MPAs have become self-evident and they now attract enthusiastic local support.

Undoubtedly the greatest achievement for consensus politics has been the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), with ~20% of the total coastal area agreed unanimously amongst stakeholders as “no-take” tourism and sanctuary zones. Nevertheless, this MPA has yet to be fully accepted by local fishers and its success remains to be properly gauged after residents come to terms with the pronounced social shift from a virtually lawless situation to one managed by participatory decision-making.

The Galapagos case does, however, indicate the importance of enforcement. During the lucrative 2002 sea cucumber season, no policing occurred over a three-week period following a contractual dispute and the withdrawal of navy support to patrolling by the Galapagos National Park Service. (Naval presence is required by law.) Despite agreements by all GMR stakeholders to respect sanctuary zones, illegal fishing occurred openly in closed zones during this time, devastating protected stocks.

Certainly, MPAs derived by consensus represent the ideal condition, all else being equal – particularly when this translates to a sense of local ownership and pride, with safeguards against poaching. However, negatives associated with MPAs agreed by consensus can include the time required for the negotiation process to reach conclusion, the generally small areas finally agreed to, and lack of any protection for resource-rich regions and habitats. Community decisions about MPAs should reflect regional, not just local, opinion.

My views on this issue have no doubt been colored by the situation in my home state of Tasmania, where four MPAs were declared in 1991 without support from the fishing industry. The leader of the recreational fishing lobby in fact stated that there would be “blood on the water” if an MPA were to be declared at Maria Island, and compromises were made during each round of negotiation that reduced its conservation value (ultimately resulting inter alia in reef gill-netting by both recreational and professional fishers being permitted off 5 of the 12 km of coastline within the Maria Island “marine reserve”). Lack of industry support notwithstanding, the Tasmanian community quickly concluded that the Maria Island sanctuary zone was a great success with rapidly increasing numbers of large rock lobsters and fishes, and two years later a network of MPAs for the state was agreed in principle by all local political parties. However, the larger network has progressed little over the past decade – and net fishing continues in much of the Maria Island reserve – as the search for consensus amongst stakeholders continues.

For Galapagos, final consensus on boundaries was only reached by locking away all stakeholder representatives on a cruise of the islands (locally referred to as “the love boat cruise”), with instructions to the captain to stay at sea until agreement was reached.

Clearly, the declaration of MPAs ultimately depends on political criteria, which are not necessarily the same as the scientific and social criteria required for effectiveness. We cannot ignore the fact that MPAs will generally alienate part of a politician’s constituency – either resource users who feel “locked out” of an area, or conservationists who feel that the MPA is too weak. An unfortunate consequence is that a politician’s interest is normally best served by deferring a decision but appearing active. A common way of doing this is an illusive search for consensus involving ongoing consultations, committee meetings, strategies, background documents, briefings, discussion papers, draft reports, etc. If this process is not concluded within a term of government, then it can slip back to the start. To me, this may be the pre-eminent reason why the best-designed MPA in the world, justifiable for all the right social and scientific reasons, often seems to go nowhere.

Graham Edgar
University of Tasmania, GPO Box 252-05 Hobart, Tas 7001, Australia. Tel: +61 3 6226 7632; E-mail: