October 1, 2020

Marine protected areas: where species are reborn

Biodiversity. Spain is one of the European countries with the most protected marine areas, both from an environmental and fishing point of view. Scientists have verified that these legal figures really work, since they become sources of recovery that also spread to their surroundings. The international program Intemares is now trying to manage these spaces and also expand their number.

“The sea is immense, but its protection is minimal.” This is how the prestigious World Wildlife Fund (WWF) summarizes the environmental situation of the marine environment, which, however, does not deny the strong advances that have taken place in this area in Spain over the last ten years. And it is that in this time it has gone from having 1% of Spanish waters protected to reaching 10%. It may seem (and without a doubt it is) an insufficient surface area, but despite this, Spain has become a leading country in the preservation of its seas within the European Union, where the global percentage protected remains at 4%.

In a similar way to what happens on land, the sea requires legal figures to protect it from human action. And, of course, there is a varied repertoire of categories of protection for the sea, depending on whether they are the responsibility of the central government, the autonomous communities or the European Union, since all of them approve their own figures. Marine reserves, for example, are mainly aimed at preserving the fishing resources of a certain place, but there are many other figures aimed at strictly environmental conservation: National Maritime Parks (Cabrera, in the Balearic Islands), Marine Natural Parks, Nature Reserves, Places of Community Importance (SCI), Special Bird Protection Zones (ZEPA), Special Conservation Zones (ZEC) … a host of acronyms that often overlap each other and do not always reach the necessary efficiency, according to experts.

“Usefulness more than demonstrated”

The marine scientist of the Oceana organization Silvia García does not harbor the slightest doubt about the benefits of these protection figures when it comes to recovering the marine environment. «Its usefulness is more than demonstrated. If you protect a marine area, not only does that ecosystem recover, but fish and other species move out of it to occupy other areas, so that there is a migration of that ecological wealth to the outside.

A specimen of grouper in the waters of Formentera.  Manu San Felix
A specimen of grouper in the waters of Formentera. Manu San Felix

However, this scientist makes an important warning: “It is not just about declaring an area protected, then you have to do your homework and carry out the corresponding management of said space.” If not, she points out, it is of little use to have a perimeter demarcated with the marine protected area label. That is precisely the great challenge faced by experts and conservation movements: ensuring that all existing areas in Spain have their corresponding management plan.

As for the SCI spaces and the SPAs (European figures within the Natura 2000 Network), half of those existing in Spain already have a management plan, while another 25% is under preparation. It is not a very low proportion, especially in comparison with the European average, says García. As stated by WWF, “the fact that an area belongs to the Natura 2000 Network does not guarantee a good state of the health of the sea. Management plans are necessary with clear conservation objectives and that promote an active and informed participation of people ”.

The protection of the sea took an important step about ten years ago with the implementation of the international Indemares program, which made it possible to protect ten large areas on the high seas in Spain. Now a new similar program is being carried out, which aims to increase the number of preserved areas and provide management plans for those that still do not have one, for example, the recently created Spanish Levante cetacean corridor. From Oceana they trust that this corridor, now only a legal figure, ends up having specific rules to guarantee the protection and recovery of species and ecosystems.

Recovering the fishing

One of the protection zones that seems to be giving good results are the marine fishing reserves, conceived above all to recover fish resources.

Aniol Esteban, head of the Marilles Foundation, which works mainly in the Balearic Islands, affirms that “the marine reserves have worked and are giving good results” and gives as an example the existing reserve between the islands of Ibiza and Formentera, which has now become the most important of the archipelago for its variety of species. There, the number of fish (the total biomass) has increased in both shallow and deep waters. But in the latter case the results are especially spectacular, because there are specific areas where in just 11 years the number of fish has more than doubled.

Spain has 10% of its marine surface protected, compared to only 4% for the whole of the European Union

Even so, Aniol Esteban considers that «the improvement experienced is still below what could be achieved; there is very significant room for improvement ». And this is due, among other things, to the lack of public funding for proper monitoring and management of these reserves, some of which depend on the autonomous communities and others on the central government.

Marine protected areas experience an improvement in their biodiversity after years of continuous management.  Xavi Salvador
Marine protected areas experience an improvement in their biodiversity after years of continuous management. Xavi Salvador

But there are other problems: the fact that a marine area is labeled ‘protected’ does not mean that it is free from aggression. Oceana recalls that in almost all of them trawling is still allowed, “a net with weights below that crawls along the bottom of the sea and destroys what it finds in its path,” summarizes Silvia García. “In a protected area this should not be allowed,” she points out, since finding solutions that mitigate its effects “is very difficult.”

The director of Marilles points out that protected areas “generate a flow of benefits that translates into economic terms”, as the local fishermen’s associations attest. And, on the contrary, “if we erode natural capital, we are eroding economic capital,” Esteban points out.

Objective: that 10% of the preserved surface of Spain is “untouchable”

The integral reserves, where all uses are prohibited, “prove to be the most efficient formula”

The belief of many people that the declaration of a marine protected area automatically equates to the total absence of impacts is false. On the contrary, fishing (sometimes with aggressive methods) is still possible in its interior, as well as navigation, anchoring and other human activities. As an example, Aniol Esteban, from the Fundació Marilles, points out that «20% of the waters of the Balearic Islands have some type of protection, but only 0.16% have comprehensive protection, that is, nothing can be caught there for being an integral reserve ». It is necessary, he assures, to considerably expand this ‘untouchable’ surface.

The scientist Silvia García has the same opinion from Oceana: «The new European strategy seeks to properly manage 30% of Europe’s marine surface by 2030. Of that 30%, it is established that 10% must be ‘strictly protected’, that is to say , with all prohibited uses, as integral reserves “, since this formula” has proven to be the most efficient for the recovery of degraded systems “, he explains.

MARINE PROTECTED AREAS OF SPAIN Different conservation figures in force (only those of the EU Natura 2000 Network)
Different conservation figures in force (only those of the EU Natura 2000 Network)

Ideally, for García, is that all Marine Protected Areas, whatever their classification, have at least that 10% of their surface declared as an integral reserve, as in theory the fishing reserves of Spain already have, without possible use of any class. “That 10% ‘untouchable’ is a basic management measure, allowing only management and research tasks, to protect the most vulnerable elements with the greatest natural value,” he says.

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