top of page

Evidence that fish flourish in a community-managed marine area offers hope

by Malavika Vyawahare on 21 May 2020

  • New research from Madagascar offers a glimmer of hope that locally managed marine areas (LMMAs), an alternative to conventional government-managed marine protected areas (MPAs), could help secure the richness of the seas.

  • A study done in-house by Blue Ventures, a nonprofit that co-manages the Velondriake LMMA with local communities, found that the fish biomass was almost two times more in no-take zones than sites where fishing was allowed after six years.

  • However, fish targeted by fishers did not increase in amount, which some experts point out would indicate that the LMMA is actually not effective.

  • Study authors say local communities are able to enforce restrictions because they feel a sense of ownership, which is essential for a conservation project in poorer countries to succeed.

Marine protected areas have expanded rapidly in the past decade. Even so, less than 8% of the world’s oceans are safeguarded by MPAs and only around one-third of that area is well-managed. Now, new research from Madagascar offers a glimmer of hope that locally managed marine areas (LMMAs), an alternative to conventional MPAs, could help secure the richness of the seas.

The key distinction between the two is that MPAs are managed top-down through government diktats, while in LMMAs local communities take the lead in decision-making. However, LMMAs are primarily designed to promote sustainable fisheries, not to protect marine species.

A Blue Ventures team member carrying out a coral survey for the research. Photo courtesy: Blue Ventures.

Evidence from the Velondriake LMMA in northwest Madagascar suggests that LMMAs could have conservation benefits more broadly, too. A study of five no-take zones within the LMMA found that the amount of fish there, measured as total fish biomass, or the weight of all the fish per unit area, was higher than in control areas where fishing is allowed. The increases were driven by significant gains in two of the five no-take zones that have enjoyed longer-term protection.

The study was done in-house by Blue Ventures, a nonprofit that helped create and now co-manages the LMMA with local communities. The LMMA originated in 2006 with 25 participating villages. Today, it stretches across 640 square kilometers (250 square miles), with 32 villages involved. Commercial fishing, destructive fishing techniques, and the targeting of certain species, like turtles, dolphins and dugongs, are all prohibited. Embedded within the larger regulated area are no-take zones where no fishing is allowed.

An aerial view of the research base in Andavadoaka, Madagascar. Image by Emre Erduran/Blue Ventures

“The work is important as each bit of evidence about the effectiveness of these kinds of locally managed zones helps find viable options for sustainable management across all types of fisheries,” said Beth Fulton, a research scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who was not involved in the study. Fulton said she found the evidence “convincing” that these kinds of closures protect “against ongoing declines of fish stocks outside the zones.”

Madagascar, the fourth-largest island on the planet, has a coastline of 4,828 km (3,000 mi), and at least half a million people rely directly or indirectly on fishing to earn a living. “There is a long history of overfishing for small-scale fisheries in Madagascar, with many being overexploited and some close to collapse,” a 2019 evaluation found. Commercial fishing and the operation of foreign-owned fishing fleets have also wreaked havoc in many areas.

Scientists generally agree that fish biomass is a sound indicator of the success of regulations in curbing overfishing. It also makes other benefits possible, like greater ecosystem resilience and growing coral cover, according to Graham Edgar, a marine ecologist at the University of Tasmania. Higher fish biomass itself does not ensure that these outcomes are realized, he said.

But the story becomes complicated when the status of different fish species is considered. The research found that fish biomass for fish families that were preferred by the fishers did not benefit from protection. “Unfortunately, the analysis produces an inconclusive outcome,” Edgar said. “If the LMMAs are working effectively and targeted species are protected, then total biomass of the targeted species should rise within the LMMA.”

An increased fish biomass means more fish in the sea. Image by Garth Cripps/Blue Ventures.

“Locally Managed Marine Areas can work terrifically well at increasing fish catches at the village level,” Edgar said. “However, because of the small size of permanent no-fishing zones, benefits to broader biodiversity conservation goals are modest at best.”

The LMMA approach became popular throughout Southeast Asia in the 1990s. The Apo Island marine sanctuary in the Philippines is a good example of the advantages and limitations of LMMAs. A community-managed system was installed here in 1982, and fisheries improved because of the protections. “One of the biggest challenges of closures is keeping them going through time as pressures in the community change,” Fulton said. “That is one thing Apo struggled with and is part of the reason it is now top down managed.” A committee with representatives from the national, provincial, municipal and local levels is now responsible for the sanctuary.

But the study authors point out that the no-take zones (NTZs) “delivered a conservation benefit that rivals government-run NTZs in the region, against a backdrop of severe biomass depletion, coastal poverty and human dependence on fishing,” arguing that they should be considered a viable alternative.

LMMAs, where communities have a large say in how the area is managed and which sites are seasonally or permanently closed, can work because of better compliance than conventional MPAs. “Because of the community-managed nature of these no-take zones, they are recognized as closed throughout the region,” said Hannah Gilchrist, the first author of the new study and a researcher with Blue Ventures. “It’s not very likely that poaching would happen because there’s a sense of ownership over these areas.”

A community meeting in the Velondriake LMMA. Image courtesy Leica May/Blue Ventures.

The study showed that sustained protection helps species recover. In addition to community buy-in, Velondriake has benefited from long-term financial and technical support, as well as resources for research, from Blue Ventures.

Many, like Gilchrist, say they believe the problem with LMMAs is not that they don’t assure conservation benefits — but that these are not as well documented. Gilchrist says she hopes her team’s findings will be widely disseminated through the Mihari network, a civil society platform that brings together promoters and managers of LMMAs across the country. About 18% of Madagascar’s nearshore marine area currently falls under 175 LMMAs, according to the network.

“The goal would be to be able to have more data like this throughout Madagascar,” she said, “but realistically it’s tricky to create this kind of high-quality data with the infrastructure that is in place and the amount of technical knowledge you need to build first before getting to this point.”

It took her team five years to gather the data and write up a paper that met the standards of a reputed scientific journal. Evidence that passes the rigor of the Western ideal of science is not easy or cheap to produce. At the same time, attracting funding for LMMAs depends to a large extent on showing they work.

“I think the pressures on our marine ecosystems are so severe, like climate change, overfishing, more cyclones, coral bleaching, pollution­­ — can we afford to wait for this kind of research to happen?” Gilchrist said.

Article published under CCL courtesy of Mongabay


bottom of page