• Highly protected marine areas (HPMA) have proved to be the most effective way to conserve and restore marine life.
  • They also offer economic benefits, both through tourism and by improving fishing stocks nearby.
  • The UK government now has an opportunity to create more HPMAs; the future of its marine life and fishing sector depends upon it.

The most destructive way to obtain food from the ocean is bottom trawling. Especially egregious are the ships called 'supertrawlers', the largest fishing vessels in the world. Their nets, which are large enough to hold a dozen 747 jets, destroy everything in their paths, including 1,000-year-old deep corals.

Surprisingly, bottom trawling is allowed within some marine protected areas (MPAs) in the UK. Even worse, according to a recent Greenpeace investigation, 25 supertrawlers spent almost 3,000 hours fishing – legally – in 39 different MPAs in the UK in 2019.

In contrast, a recent independent report commissioned by the UK government determined that highly protected MPAs (HPMAs) – areas in which all fishing activities are banned – are necessary for conserving and restoring the UK’s marine ecosystems. But presently, despite the UK Government claiming that 40% of English seas are protected, in fact only 16.4 square kilometres, or 0.01% of England’s waters, are currently fully protected from fishing.

Why the disconnect?

HPMAs have proven to be the most effective mechanism for conserving and restoring marine life. I have been working on the creation and monitoring of HPMAs all over the world for 30 years, and have seen them perform miracles. I have seen underwater deserts become havens of marine life just a few years after full protection. These HPMAs harbour fish so large that few living fishermen have ever seen such specimens in their nets. Our research shows that, on average, the biomass of fish – the tonnes of fish per hectare – is six times larger inside HPMAs than in unprotected areas nearby.

In other words, HPMAs are like savings accounts, with an investment set aside that grows like compound interest. As fish and shellfish are not killed, they grow larger, and have sex over longer periods of time, producing a disproportionately larger number of eggs. Many of those animals spill over the boundaries of the HPMAs, and their eggs and larvae are dispersed over large distances.

These are the returns of the savings account, which benefit local fishermen. We’ve seen fishermen increase their catches and incomes around HPMAs from small to large, catching species from scallops to lobsters to tuna. In addition, once the fish return, divers come in to the HPMA, helping to create jobs and bringing in additional economic revenue. A decade ago, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – one-third of which is a HPMA – reef tourism supported 54,000 full-time jobs and brought in AUD5.5 billion ($3.78 billion) to the Australian economy – 36 times more than commercial fishing.

So, if HPMAs seem such good business for marine life and for people, why don’t we have more of them?

In my discussions with fisherfolk, fishing lobbyists and politicians around the world, there is a belief that HPMAs will harm fishing, and a myth that allowing fishing inside their boundaries would be best for the fishing sector. But a 2018 study showed that trawlers fish more intensely in European MPAs that allow bottom trawling – including the UK’s – than in unprotected areas nearby, thus driving down by two thirds the abundance of sensitive species such as sharks, rays and skates within their boundaries. These areas cannot be called protected, and they don’t help fisheries either. They are an illusion that is not supported by the evidence. The science shows that the higher the level of protection of MPAs, the greater the benefits for everyone – including the local folk fishing around them.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Brexit provides a rare opportunity for the UK to take a breath and revisit its marine policy. HPMAs, alongside responsible fisheries management, can bring back the richness of the seas that UK fishermen long for. Imagine seas of abundance and replenishment for generations to come, instead of a race to the bottom where the only conservation of resources happens on paper.

The worst enemy of fishing is overfishing, not protected areas. The future of marine life and the people who live off the UK’s waters depend on them.