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Scientists, a new quota species?

Adam Rees presenting at IMCC4

Globally, marine conservation is high on the agenda. The need to protect and conserve species and habitats from deleterious anthropogenic impacts has never been of more concern than it is currently. However, that is not to say we, as a society, are achieving effective marine conservation, in fact we are far from it. Global summits have come and gone, as have the targets they set for marine conservation. Most targets have largely been focused on percentage cover of our oceans, be that 10%, 15% or 80%, as the most valuable and measurable metric - as an indicator of successful marine conservation. Inevitably, this led to many Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) being introduced in national and international waters regardless of the actual benefits they may provide, or the social, economic and political boundaries faced by implementing such areas.

You could write a thesis detailing the multitude of reasons behind MPA failings, (and some people have!), which have contributed to a shortfall in global marine conservation efforts meeting set targets. However, in an effort to avoid dwelling on the doom and gloom, the reason d’être for this blog post is to focus on learning from our MPA mistakes and highlighting a certain way in which to move forward.

I recently attended the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC4) in St John’s, Newfoundland where I presented some PhD research. I work in Lyme Bay on the South coast of England where an MPA has been introduced and mobile fishing, notably scallop dredging in this scenario, has been banned in a bid to halt further degradation and promote recovery of the biodiverse subtidal reefs that are known to exist at this site. Here I have been involved in the monitoring undertaken by Plymouth University, and more recently my PhD (Blue Marine Foundation funded) focus has been on determining the impacts of unregulated static gear activity on these recovering sensitive habitats within the Lyme Bay MPA.

A key aspect of my research involves manipulating densities of the controlled fishing effort in order to create representative test scenarios for monitoring ecological change in response to an increasing commercial fishing pressure. I am a marine scientist, not a fisherman. If this project was going to be successful I had to have the commercial fishing community on my side. Back reference to some of the examples where MPA failures have been caused by social barriers, and you will find the disruption to commercial fisheries being a key contributor. In order to avoid such a groundhog occurrence, the project was designed around the table with the fishermen who would be directly and heavily involved in the science and data collection in the project. This approach intended to give the fishermen ownership and a sense of involvement over a project which had its aims and potential outcomes clearly outlined to them at the start. And so for the most part of three years, local fishermen in the area have been directly involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the project’s needs and heavily involved in the data collection that goes with it.

It was hoped that employing this blueprint, any mistrust between the scientific and fishing communities could be dispelled by providing the fishermen with the confidence that the benefits from the findings of this research would far outweigh the negatives in the long term. This is not a quick process, and almost four years down the line these relationships are still being developed, but I firmly believe it has lasted this long due to the open approach employed. Fisher involvement is also considered imperative if compliance is needed in studies, such as my PhD, require a degree of fishing practice management over long durations.

Additionally, the partnership is very much a two-way street as the requirement of help and knowledge from the commercial fishing side is considered just as critical to success. Firstly, marine scientists can invariably be, often by their own admittance, fairly lousy sea goers. We understand what we want, the data we need and how we want it done, yet often have little regard for practical working at at sea. In Lyme Bay, we required a large volume of fishing gear that was going to be deployed at sea for around three years, with which the fishermen all had their input to meet the specifications we needed. Secondly, we used their combined extensive local knowledge regarding the inshore benthic habitats of the MPA, in order to select comparable areas of reef habitat to ensure a level of homogeneity across our treatments.

These episodes of learning by using the local knowledge of the fishermen, what I now know to be referred to as Traditional or Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK), is something that I consider vital to successful marine conservation partnerships in the marine environment. It is not particularly a new idea either, with examples of this term being used more in relation to terrestrial conservation dating back to the early 90s; often through acknowledging the benefits of indigenous knowledge when planning sustainable development in rainforest habitats. Examples of this acknowledgement extending into the marine realm can be seen from the early 2000’s, where of particular note, Douglas Wilson opens up his marine policy paper discussing how multiple knowledge sources including LEK can be used to inform management. Many journal articles and policy notes have echoed this idea since then, but have highlighted the subsequent lack of uptake an LEK requirement by national and international policy which targets conserving biodiversity and/or managing our natural resources.

Whilst there are many recent examples that display an appreciation of LEK, such as by undertaking extensive interviews with local people, even using their responses to improve our fundamental ecological understanding and designing multiple projects using such knowledge, it is recognised that the semi-quantitative efforts to legitimise the use of LEK is not reliable enough to develop bases for environmental management. Referring to Wilson once more, 'Fisheries management cannot be effective if it is not considered legitimate by stakeholders. This is especially true when institutions are weak and implementation relies on voluntary compliance’; I couldn’t agree more. Congruent arguments have heavily cited problems of using such a knowledge source as being fundamental to the failure to include LEK in marine conservation; ‘It isn’t scientific enough.’

However, it is a renewed involvement of local/indigenous individuals in the conception of ideas for achieving effective marine conservation I am advocating for in this blog. These individuals may not be providing anything tangible or quantifiable but their consideration as a key ‘stakeholder’ is just as important. If it’s the case of an MPA, the fishers usually lose out in some way and it’s important to talk about the longer term benefits. Speaking from my experience from integrating the commercial fishing sector, these individuals that agree to be involved are often the oldest or most respected members of that local fishing community. Coined ‘sentinel’ fishermen and a self-appointed 'leader of sheep,' positive encouragement for a project from such individuals can be even more enabling to marine scientists than any amount of acquired funding or governmental dispensations.

And this is where comparisons can be drawn with other such studies of similar ilk, and my horizons of which have been broadened thanks to interactions at IMCC4. In presentations, I always include a PowerPoint slide entitled ‘Scientists as fishermen’ in order to promote the issue discussed here. However, never has a slide been more redundant as at IMCC4, as this was a widely common theme at the congress; IMCC helped promote multiple case studies where this idea was centerpiece. Examples of head fishermen chiefs from bag net fisheries in India, being both sought after by decision-making stakeholders in order to provide their LEK to the negotiating table but also tasked with relaying the knowledge they had acquired from the meetings back to the local fishing villages (Biswal, RL, IMCC4 2016).

Another example is the development of Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project (SEASWAP), a collaboration between commercial long line fishermen and scientists that aims to reduce interactions between commercial fishing and sperm whales. Here, fishermen are involved in defining study questions, setting objectives designing and testing equipment, and even swapping their normal fishing boats for conferences as they become representatives of this collaboration at symposia and scientific conferences alike (O’Connell, V, IMCC4 2016). Furthermore, there was even a facilitated formal discussion aptly named ‘Bringing fishermen to the table’ which highlighted a number of tools that could be employed to facilitate engagement of the fishing sector in order to secure long term participation in science. Encouraged from momentum gathered from a recent GAP2 conference that brought fishermen and stakeholders together, (gap2.eu) an ex-fisher turned communicator of all things science Lawrence Hartnell (@ThroughTheGaps), along with other partners, including Dr. Maria Campbell (@FishyKnowledge), promoted the use of online tools and discussion forums to be utilised in order to bring the most difficult to reach to the discussion table: fishermen. Using this discussion, it was widely accepted this approach is imperative in achieving co-ownership and active participation from the commercial fishing sector in marine conservation to help support reliable evidence-based decision making in the marine environment.

Looking forward, the incorporation of LEK into the schematics behind effective marine conservation should be imperative on the international scale. This, however, should not be satisfied through a number of questionnaires handed out to a subset of fishermen, nor workshop sessions with only fishers present that happened to have their boat being fixed on that date, but the inclusion of multiple stakeholders with significant and beneficial LEK at the highest level when initial, and all thereafter, decisions are made. With the rise of scientific literate fishermen, it is imperative to become fishing-savvy scientists - and then we all have a place at the table.


Adam Rees is a marine biologist and PhD Candidate at Plymouth University. You can find Adam on Twitter @AdamLikesTheSea