Sunday, April 05, 2015

Cocos Island - a Paper Park?

Remember this paper?

The authors are weighing in, and here's another piece.
And I cite.
The declines in the number of sharks and rays restricted to the waters surrounding Cocos are a clear indication that the protected area isn’t working.
New research led by researchers at the University of Victoria raises serious concerns about the ability of marine protected areas (MPAs) to effectively protect wide-ranging iconic species, such as sharks and rays.
I say, not so fast!
There is an increasingly irritating cabal of vociferous researchers that instead of being preoccupied with the 99.97% of oceans that are not being protected, continue to snipe against the 0.3% that have been designated as MPAs - and these statements are playing right into their hands.
So, was protecting Cocos and for the matter, the other hot spots Malpelo, Gorgona and the Galapagos nothing but an exercise in futility?

Yes of course there have been declines!
When it comes to the wide-ranging pelagic species like the Hammers that regularly leave protected waters when they migrate between Cocos, Malpelo and the Northern Galapagos it was to be expected. It's exactly the same here in Fiji when the Bulls leave the Fiji Shark Corridor, and over the past decade, we too have lost several individuals. BUT, by the same token, many more have survived because like Juerg's paper shows, our Bulls spend approx 1/2 of their lives in protected waters!
And the same of course applies mutatis mutandis to those Hammers - or does anybody believe that you could still see those iconic schools if we had not protected those sites, and if the dive boats had not been there as witnesses that did certainly discourage the worst of the poaching? If so, think again, as in comparable places like the El Bajo in the Sea of Cortez where there is no local protection, the Hammers have all but disappeared!
In brief, the protected area is by no means not working, it is merely working imperfectly!

And the resident Elasmobranchs?
Although I'm clearly speculating, some of those Rays and Whitetips that are being predated upon by the increasing numbers of Tigers and the Galapagoses may well have decided to depart for greener pastures much like we are witnessing here in Fiji.
But chiefly, they have been the victims of insufficient enforcement - which incidentally is the principal reason why many full no-take MPAs are failing globally! In brief, the failure of many declared MPAs is not a failure of the concept per se, it's a failure of their implementation - meaning that we got to improve the implementation and stop sniping against the concept! 
And anyway: show me a better way to protect marine biodiversity in the developing world where there are simply not enough resources for enacting proper management - and since yer at it, how about proving your point by enacting your miraculous recipes in those remaining 99.97% and leaving us alone! 
And yes I'm being uncharacteristically polite! :)

The researchers write,
Although management efforts have increased in the past decade, illegal fishing still occurs within the island’s waters (Arias et al. 2014). It is unclear if the Cocos Island MPA is even properly designed (Botsford et al. 2003) to protect such large and wide-ranging species (Hooker and Gerber 2004; Gr¨uss 2014). 

Conservation efforts at Cocos Island cannot be focused simply on expanding the protected area (Arias et al. 2014); rather, efforts should be put toward increasing enforcement and management (Kelaher et al. 2015). Costa Rica’s efforts to increase their MPA coverage are admirable, but the establishment of MPAs cannot be the end point. Explicit plans and dedicated funding for monitoring and enforcement must be in place to prevent the creation of a network of paper parks. These plans need to include using both theory about MPAs and empirical data (White et al. 2011). Further, there must be stronger penalties for noncompliance with MPA rules to offset the potential gains of illegal fishing (Arias et al. 2014). 

We recommend that monitoring and enforcement of Costa Rica’s MPAs be increased substantially and that international environmental NGOs and foundations contribute to these efforts. Such efforts are urgently required if Cocos Island is to recover its elasmobranch populations and claim its status as a truly successful MPA.
Could not agree more!
And if I may venture a suggestion, apply Fiji's new concept of public/private partnerships in marine conservation and deputize the local crews of the liveaboard vessels that could then help Costa Rica enforce the MPA!

But above all.
Let's continue to celebrate Cocos Island as one of the most iconic Shark diving destinations, and let's commend and thank the Undersea Hunter Group for the pioneering and selfless work they continue to do there on a daily basis! 

Yes there may be Trouble in Paradise.
But it's still Paradise, and the trouble can certainly be overcome!

And since we're at it.
Enjoy - very nice! :)


Yannis said...

I agree with your points and the final comment by the authors. Yes, MPAs need to be better designed and better enforcement. I will add one additional comment and that is related to the limitation of the method used to estimate shark abundance. With diver based counts you should also always consider species-specific changes in behaviour. Especially for residential species (e.g. whitetips), have the numbers decreased or have sharks become more habituated to divers? I have no idea how the numbers of divers has changed in the last 2-3 decades or if that applies to species at Cocos, but it is always something I am concerned about with diver based surveys of large mobile animals. Clearly that wont be an issue with counting big schools of hammerheads, but could it be for whitetips and silkies (I dont know the answer)?

Rumsfelds Ghost said...

That sum fancy wording there pardner, worthy of another and his, "known, unknowns" speech:

"In brief, the protected area is by no means not working, it is merely working imperfectly!"

A dead fish is still a dead fish. Imperfect though that may seem.

DaShark said...


Are you saying that protecting the aggregation sites of Cocos, Malpelo and the Galapagos has been a mistake?


Rumsfelds Ghost said...

No, it has not been a mistake.

Protection of natural resources is a great step in the right direction - provided they are actually protected.

The issue is of funding.

Ian Campbell said...

Wow. Talk about having some serious caveats to the research. The research states "We examined data collected by a small group of divers over the past 21 years..."

The paper does not seem to even hint at the possibility that the shark species that have declined at the specific dive sites may have increased at others.

Also, there is the interesting wording implying that "several" of the 6 species have "small home ranges", yet include manta, mobulids and hammerheads in that statement. The paper then goes on to state that other species are on the increase including tigers and blacktips, sharks that definitely have a smaller home range than the previous species.

There has been no comparison of the numbers of species such as mobulas and mantas that have been included in legitimate landing data from legal catches. There is some degree of probability that these species are being caught elsewhere, which has knock-on effects at aggregation sites.

Are large scale MPAs perfect? No. Especially in countries that face more immediate pressures on the public purse. Do they work? Yes, but only to the degree of implementation. Even partial implementation will bring a degree of success.

The biggest flaw in large-scale MPAs, in my opinion (for what that's worth), is that they are often held up as the answer to the problem. MPA law passed, all is now well. Well, they ain't, but they're a damn well significant first step in the right direction.

Just like simple gear adaptations, or shiny long-term management policies, fin bans or species bans or international agreements such as CITES & CMS, MPAs do not provide a silver bullet in isolation. It will take all of these areas dovetailing together & with some kind of coherence to get things to where they need to be.

DaShark said...

The paper does not seem to even hint at the possibility that the shark species that have declined at the specific dive sites may have increased at others.

You obviously don't know Cocos - the divers visit all of its sites and the census is certainly correct in its trajectory.

Have you read the whole paper?
That may allay some of your concerns cuz I really find it rather stellar!

Re those MPAs and other attempts at reducing mortality - fully agree.