Marine World Heritage Sites: Cornerstone of Sustainable Fisheries

It’s a scary world these days for fish. Just ask Brian Sullivan from Google Ocean & Earth Outreach, whose Global Fishing Watch enables us to watch the activity of tens of thousands of boats around the world that are using ever more sophisticated technology, and venturing further and further from shore, to satisfy our insatiable appetite for fresh seafood.

Or ask Daniel Pauly from the University of British Columbia, who has made it his life’s work to sound the alarm about shrinking fish and growing fleets. Ask the managers of Cocos Island, Coiba National Park, or any one of the dozens of World Heritage marine sites that struggle with illegal and unsustainable fisheries despite their iconic status.

Pictures taken during the third UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme Conference. Copyright by UNESCO
Daniel Pauly. Photo credit Daniel Correia.

The fact is that we dramatically underestimate the amount of fish that is taken from the ocean each year, and constantly adjust our expectations downward rather than working to recover the natural abundance our seas should support. This tendency, which Daniel Pauly calls “shifting baselines,” often results from a lack of information. Marine World Heritage sites should serve as time capsules show us what a healthy ocean looks like. But many have been subject to serious fishing pressure.

That is changing, thanks to the vision and efforts of many leaders. We are seeing more and more World Heritage sites establishing large no-take zones where plants and animals can recover and thrive. We are also seeing exciting efforts to track and share fishery information from the local level all the way up to the global scale, because we can’t manage what we don’t measure.

That is why Stephen Box and the team at Smithsonian Institution and partners are working to equip fish byers with a specially designed app that allow them to collect and share catch figures while also helping to track expenses and income. It is why Daniel Pauly and his colleagues spent years compiling country-by-country fishery data for the first Global Atlas of Marine Fisheries.

Right now, we have much better information about commercial fishing than we do about the many sport, recreational and artisanal fisheries that exist all over the world, including in many of the 49 marine sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. These fisheries are small scale, but they are legion, and their individual and collective actions make a huge difference, either pushing our fisheries closer to collapse, or maintaining their long-term health.

Many World Heritage marine managers are working with local fishers to plan for the future. For example, in Sian Ka’an World Heritage site on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a new community enterprise is working to keep lobster populations and profits healthy. Fishermen there only catch live lobster so they can throw back breeding females. They spread out the fishing pressure, and limit the kinds of gear that can be used. They are also working on certifications that will increase the market value of Sian Ka’an lobster by emphasizing their sustainability.

UNESCO Third World Heritage Marine Managers Conference
Enric Sala at the UNESCO Third World Heritage Marine Managers Conference. Photo credit Andreas Krueger.

This kind of co-management is important, but, as National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala told World Heritage marine managers at our recent conference, “There is little future for artisanal fisheries without large no-take areas.” No-take zones produce more and bigger fish, in part by sheltering big fat females that produce exponentially more young. In the no-take area of Scandola Reserve, for example, Enric Sala noted that researchers have found 31-year-old fish that produce 200 times more babies than the 5-year-old fish caught outside its boundaries.

Photo credit Julio Moure.
Photo credit Julio Moure.

The creation of no-take zones can be controversial, despite reams of research on their benefits, so sites like the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos National Park work hard to involve fishermen in both planning and monitoring. Both of these sites have closed about a third of their waters to fishing. After a decade, the no-take “green zones” in the Great Barrier Reef are producing more and bigger fish, and fishermen are starting to see benefits in the form of spillover (fish from thriving no-take zones that swim into areas where they can be caught legally.)

“If you think about green zones like a bank of fish, and the bank is throwing money out the window that everyone is allowed to pick up, why would anyone want to rob the bank?” says Paul Aubin, a Great Barrier Reef recreational fisher.

Earlier this year, Galapagos National Park followed in the Great Barrier Reef’s footsteps, rezoning the marine site to fully protect about a third of its waters. Park director Walter Bustos said that Ecuador’s fishermen have seen benefits from older marine reserves—where “tuna go to fatten”—and support the new plan. The two sites have been working together on surveillance strategies, and agreed at the recent conference to scale up compliance and monitoring efforts.

Fortunately, managers now have a new tool to help them track fishing in and around their sites: Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Oceana, SkyTruth and Google. It has already helped the tiny island nation of Kiribati secure its 250,000 square mile Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), the largest World Heritage site on the planet, against poaching. PIPA was closed to all industrial fishing in January 2015, but Kiribati’s capacity to patrol the vast reserve is limited. Last year, Global Fishing Watch supplied the evidence Kiribati needed to recover $2.2 million from a purse seining vessel caught fishing in the reserve.

Fishing before the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.
Fishing after the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.
Fishing after the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.

As the demand for fresh fish and shellfish continues to grow, Marine World Heritage sites have a key role to play as a refuge and a reference point for sustainable fisheries. Fortunately, managers are increasingly well equipped to meet this challenge. From community cooperatives and market incentives, to Google’s eye in the sky and Smithsonian Institution’s catch data, these leaders are harnessing best practices and technology, as well as the strength of this global network. Together, we are creating a more secure future for our fisheries, and the communities that depend on them. After all, marine World Heritage sites reflect the legacy of our past, what we live with today and what we will pass on to future generations. Sustainable fisheries are central to protecting these priceless assets of humanity.


Dr. Fanny Douvere is the coordinator of the Marine Programme at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, France. Since October 2009, her mission is to ensure the 49 marine sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List are conserved and sustainably managed so future generations can continue to enjoy them. She recently wrote in Nature on why not investing in marine World Heritage is a lost opportunity for the oceans

Prior to her work at the World Heritage Centre, she co-initiated and led the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) initative at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. In 2009 she co-published the UNESCO guide Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach Toward Ecosystem-based Management. The guide has gained international recognition for setting a standard for the application of MSP and is available in six languages. She also served as an advisor to the United States Executive Office of the President (Council of Environmental Quality) on the development of the US Framework for Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning.

She co-authored more than 20 articles in internationally peer-reviewed journals on both marine World Heritage and MSP. Most recently, she authored for World Heritage Marine Sites Managing effectively the world’s most iconic Marine Protected Areas. A Best Practice Guide, in which she lays out a tangible approach for marine protected area management based on the fundamental idea that all things happen in time and space and the oceans should be managed accordingly.

Fanny obtained her PhD in 2010 from the Ghent University in Belgium and published the book Marine Spatial Planning: Concepts, current practice and linkages to other management approaches.

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