MPA Perspective: The Diminishing Returns of MPA Science

MPA News

Editor's note: Jake Rice is director of the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He manages the peer review and application of marine and fisheries science to policy formation and management decisionmaking. In this perspective piece, he expands on remarks he made at the May 2003 meeting of the Science and Management of Protected Areas Association (SAMPAA), held in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

By Jake Rice, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

There is a common belief that good science, combined with enough consultation, will provide universal support for MPAs. Based on my experience linking science to policy in marine conservation and management, particularly in fisheries, I think this belief is naive. I am prompted to share two observations on the appropriate relationship of science and MPAs.

First, science is crucial to selection of good sites for MPAs and determining what provisions of management plans are necessary for each MPA to achieve its objectives. However, such science has diminishing returns. We don't need enough science to design the perfect MPA, however desirable perfection may be. The time and research support necessary to have all the answers is excessive.

If the justification for establishing an MPA is the protection of a unique feature, the feature should be unique enough to stand without long-term, intensive research. If not, a science-based justification of "uniqueness" won't be convincing to opponents anyway. If the ecological goals of an MPA are more generally to protect representative ecosystem structure and function, the cost of research to demonstrate conclusively that an area is "representative" and to quantify all important structural and functional properties is prohibitive.

With realistic amounts of science, I suspect that all that could really be shown on a case-specific basis is what we already know: we need such MPAs to be large and we need them soon. The inescapable opportunity for "more research" should not be an excuse to delay action once the properties of candidate areas are known well enough for informed discussion of the likely consequences of protection.

Second, and more importantly, there is no scientific finding out there, waiting to be discovered, that will make opposition to MPAs melt away. Where people currently (or plan to) pursue economic activities such as fishing in a proposed MPA, some of them will feel they will lose at least part of their economic or cultural basis of living when their activities are prohibited or restricted. Perhaps enough science can be done to demonstrate to the satisfaction of objective third parties that in the medium term there will be more benefits than losses from setting up the MPA, or that the economic activity is doomed in the medium term anyway due to resource overexploitation. That won't convert all of those stakeholders who are focused on their immediate losses (whether only short-term or enduring) into supporters of the MPA.

If local opinion were formed primarily by objective and relevant information, participants in fisheries long ago would have embraced reduced effort, capacity, and catches. After all, existing fisheries models clearly demonstrate how much more yield could be taken from stocks were they allowed to rebuild.

Experience is very different: opponents of fishery reductions can acknowledge all the potential benefits yet can oppose the reductions for at least two reasons. They cannot address the immediate costs that they would incur personally, whatever the potential future benefits might be. And there is no guarantee that when the benefits started to accrue, those who bore the costs would be the ones to accrue the benefits. Both of these factors play strongly in stakeholder discussions on fisheries, where the models predicting the future benefits, though flawed in many ways, are better than any quantitative ecosystem models available, and where the future benefits are necessarily in the currency most relevant to the fishers (i.e., catches). In contrast, when discussions are about short-term sacrifice of fisheries to allow MPA establishment, the future benefits will be more uncertain in timing and magnitude, and many of the greatest benefits will be in currencies of less direct relevance to fishers.

The messages are that science is important - we all support it - but even the best science is no "magic bullet" that neutralizes opposition and ensures MPAs will be the perfect tools for recovering healthy ecosystems. We certainly need to use all the science we have when planning and managing MPAs, and to consult widely with affected stakeholders, building as strong a base of support as possible. However, we also need to be prepared to act without full information and full consensus when the decision system is receptive, and to make some mistakes due to incomplete knowledge. What matters then is that we admit the mistakes later when more information becomes available, and do our best to correct them.

Above all, we need to keep our use of science consistent with the reasons why science has such a privileged place in decision-making. Science is not the selective use of information for advocacy purposes. It is the use of all available information, however great or inadequate, to allow an informed and common factual basis, from which advocates from all perspectives can find as much common ground as possible.

For more information:

Jake Rice, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 200 Kent Street, Stn 12036, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E6, Canada. Tel: +1 613 993 0029; E-mail: ricej [at] dfo-mpo.gc.ca.