New study: Local communities key to conservation planning

Researchers from Project Seahorse recently published a new study which shows that marine protected areas (MPAs) established by local communities can protect marine species and habitats as, or nearly as, effectively as those established using rigorous scientific planning tools. 

“In a perfect world we would use a combination of science and community knowledge to create MPAs in areas that protect the richest possible diversity of marine life,” says PhD student Gretchen Hansen, the lead investigator on the study, which was published as "Hindsight in marine protected area selection: A comparison of ecological representation arising from opportunistic and systematic approaches" in the June 2011 issue ofBiological Conservation

“But we urgently need to protect marine ecosystems and this level of scientific knowledge and rigour is not always available or possible, especially in developing world contexts,” she adds.

Only about 1% of the world’s oceans are currently protected from harmful human activities such as overfishing and pollution. Over the past 15 years, Project Seahorse has been working with local communities in Danajon Bank, Philippines — "the centre of the centre" of marine biodiversity — to establish 34 MPAs on the rare and overexploited double-barrier reef system.

“When we started out, very little data about fish populations and habitats existed for the region. We quickly realized that involving local communities directly would be the most expedient way to address the situation,” says Dr. Amanda Vincent, one of the study’s co-authors and the Director of Project Seahorse. 

“So, we asked them where they thought the MPAs should be, helped them to establish the reserves, and monitored fish populations and habitat inside and outside the boundaries.”

The new study shows that many of the sites made conservation gains that would have been comparable to those established using scientific planning, with fish populations and habitats recovering from damage wrought by widespread illegal fishing practices such as blast fishing.

“There is a great need for more MPAs around the world. Working together, conservation scientists and local communities can respond much more quickly and effectively than previously thought,” says Vincent.

To learn more, visit http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2011.04.002