[MARMAM] Marine Conservation on Paper

MARMAM Editors marmamed at uvic.ca
Sun Jul 1 19:29:19 PDT 2007

The following Editorial was published earlier this year. While a summary
has appeared on MARMAM, the full text is presented here. A pdf can be
downloaded at http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/toc/cbi/21/1

MARMAM Editors


Conservation Biology Volume 21, No. 1, pp. 1-3
2007 Society for Conservation Biology
DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00635.x

Marine Conservation on Paper

I have been studying dolphins in Mediterranean coastal waters over the
past two decades. Ten years ago, I started working with short-beaked
common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) in western Greece. In the transparent
blue waters surrounding the island of Kalamos there were plenty of these
marine mammals, over 100 in a small area. They surrounded the boat every
day and played with our inflatable. For a cetacean researcher, it was
paradise. Today, only a few dolphins are left. We used to see them every
day, now its once a month.

Together with the dolphins, tuna and swordfish also declined in my study
area. Their prey, anchovies and sardines, were wiped out by overfishing.
My colleagues and I have been trying to promote management action aimed at
preserving the local ecosystem, but the chances to make a difference are
few. Sometimes, it seems so hopeless; I am not the only one who feels this
way. Many people engaged in marine conservation share an increasing sense
of frustration with regard to our present chances of improving the status
of our species of interest. Where does this sad feeling come from?

In the recent past, the main challenge facing Mediterranean scientists
concerned with whale and dolphin conservation was that we knew so little
about these animals and the threats affecting them. We believed that if
only we could describe cause-effect relationships and document the main
threats, there would be ways to reduce the impacts of human activities and
improve the animals chances for recovery (where necessary) and
persistence. We therefore devoted much effort to investigating population
status and trends through hard work in the field, in laboratories, and at
computers. In some areas, several years of research allowed us to assess
how the animals were doing; in many cases they were not doing well.

At least in portions of the Mediterranean basin, reasonable explanations
were evident for low cetacean densities, declining population trends, or
excessive mortality. At that point, there was hope that science-backed
evidence would lead to action. Cetacean conservation people put on smiles
and believed their work was worthwhile; they thought they were
contributing to saving a portion of nature, however tiny.

The next steps were to communicate the new evidence to regional managers
and to draw up and promote conservation (or action) plans and other tools
with which to inform policy. The UN Environment Programmes Agreement on
the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and
Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS) was in the forefront, providing an
ideal framework for the preparation of such plans and creating links
between scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and policy makers.
There was a good feeling about the effectiveness of this process.
Considering that most Mediterranean governments formally committed to
cetacean conservation by ratifying ACCOBAMS and several other conservation
treaties, we thought that once the formal plans were available, there
would be no more impediments to management action. This was not the case.

The grim reality is that after a great deal of research and the creation
of conservation plans the tendency has been to celebrate and record these
successes in the documentation from meetings or workshops and then to
procrastinate on the subject of implementation. An example close to my own
heart is the 90-page Conservation Plan for Mediterranean Common Dolphins
prepared for ACCOBAMS in 2004. This plan was the last in a series of steps
that included field research, a comprehensive scientific review on the
status of the population, a proposal to the World Conservation Union
(IUCN) resulting in the listing of Mediterranean common dolphins as
endangered, and a press campaign targeting the European media. In this
instance, the Mediterranean parties to the ACCOBAMS agreement chose to
welcome the plan in principle but then proceeded to commission additional
planning projects rather than coming to grips with implementing the
recommended actions on behalf of common dolphins.

A problem with large-scale conservation plans laden with recommendations
(often appropriately referred to as laundry lists) is that they often turn
out to be so exceedingly expensive that they generate frustration on the
part of the people responsible for their implementation. Invariably, the
available financial resources are far out of proportion to the need. Whats
more, conservation plans almost always call for policy changes that
conflict with powerful socioeconomic interests. Calls to reduce fishing
pressure or to stop offshore dumping, for instance, are likely to cause
trouble for government representatives charged with implementation, and
this induces them to back off. Sometimes this is done straightforwardly;
at other times it happens through a call for one more step in the long
process that precedes action.

Sadly, conservation-oriented research and action plans and the call for
more workshops, meetings, studies, and reports risk adding up to nothing
more than conservation on paper. Scientists and conservationists spend
much of their life frantically writing documents and recommendations, but
little or nothing happens in the real world. Is paper, and then more
paper, all that governments really want from us? When will the time for
action come? Are we allowing ourselves to be lost in the illusion of doing
conservation while in fact we are mostly just producing conservation tools
that are rarely used?

There is always a good reason to call for another report, a more detailed
investigation, a new meeting. These are fine initiatives, but only if they
lead, eventually, to concrete steps that improve the status of the
animals. Unfortunately, this is a rare outcome. Even sanctuaries and
protected areas sometimes function as an excuse, as a way of allowing
officials to say, Look, we just created a new protected area - what more
do you want? But the questions we should all be asking are: Did the
cetaceans living in the protected area get any benefits from the new
designation? Have conservation measures actually been implemented? Has the
environment improved? or Is this just one more paper park, a high-profile
gesture that will be used to justify another decade of studies, meetings,
and inaction?

A dispassionate look at the Mediterranean reveals that most or all of the
big threats are still present and at least some are probably getting
worse. Mediterranean cetaceans die in pelagic gillnets by the thousands
(after 15 years of effort to stop this nonselective, destructive kind of
fishing). The animals decline together with their overfished prey. They
are exposed to ever-increasing noise and pollution levels. In the
meantime, the marine conservation community has its job to do. We are
writing a new report, publishing a new paper, or traveling to another
important meeting to present our latest findings. Will we ever manage to
make our case?

Last summer, I talked with fishery scientist Daniel Pauly. This venerable
person -- who has published some of the most influential papers on marine
conservation and has recently received a Cosmos Award and an SCB
Distinguished Service Award for his lifetime commitment -- is in my view
one of the few who has succeeded in making their case (Paulys work
concerns the ocean-wide impact of overfishing). When I approached this
luminary to ask for advice and encouragement, I did not expect him to
express disillusionment and to emphasize how little difference his own
work has made in actually influencing public opinion and fishery
management. The case is never made, he said.

The case is never made. All too often, it is not just a matter of
publishing another paper, writing another action plan, attending a new
workshop. There will always be something left undone. Some evidence may be
missing, and a declining trend in a graph may be due to environmental
shifts rather than human impact. In response, one does what is needed, but
finds -- again -- the case is not made. Perhaps this time the human impact
is clear, but the socioeconomic aspects were not considered or the needs
of all the stakeholders were not taken into account. This seems to be the
game today. We are charged with documenting the problem, communicating it
to the public and the institutions, proposing mitigation measures, and
approaching the right managers and institutions to convince them that they
should do something. But the bottom line is that few decision makers are
willing to face the big challenge of affecting people to protect the
environment. They are rarely serious about doing conservation that may
result in unpopular action, no matter how thick the pile of scientific
articles, workshop recommendations, and action plans on their desks. Most
decision makers are in charge for a relatively short time, and they tend
to favor action carrying immediate benefits rather than entering into
conflict with short-term interests for the sake of future human

This is not to say that government people are all uncaring. Governments
have many faces, as do human societies. Some managers, particularly in
environmental departments, are highly committed and do care. Still, they
must confront the much stronger powers of the fishery, commerce, or
defense departments because they are concerned primarily with economic and
political issues. This is why a country such as Italy may ratify an
agreement for the conservation of cetaceans and a number of conventions
for marine conservation but then strongly support fishery policies that
threaten marine ecosystems. There may be internal conflicts and
contradictions within individual governments, but it is the powerful that
normally win.

There may not be a way out, but there appears to be a way through, and it
is helpful to be reminded of the teaching of anthropologist Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world: indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. Most of the
time, success stories in marine conservation come from painstaking,
long-term commitment by individuals or groups who do not allow themselves
to be overcome by frustration.

In addition to solid science and well-conceived action plans, what is
desperately needed to promote marine conservation is public pressure.
Politicians and governments are highly concerned with signals coming from
their electorate. If the public were more demanding and managed to raise
their collective voice in calling for serious efforts on the part of
governments to preserve marine ecosystems and animal populations,
regardless of the social and economic costs, there would be a greater
chance for the action plans to be removed from the drawer and put back on
the agenda.

Such public awareness and attitude are obviously a long way off in most
Mediterranean countries, where marine conservation is not a priority.
Therefore, colossal work is needed to set the stage for a new and
widespread appreciation of nature. Only major changes in values and
sensibilities will bring about the kind of political will and commitment
that is implied in most action plans and workshop reports. What the marine
environment needs is a mass of people who value and care about it. This
means people who not only express feelings of admiration and awe for
whales and dolphins, but who also recognize the complexities involved in
achieving meaningful protection and are ready to become engaged. For
example, consumers need to understand the implications of buying
Mediterranean swordfish and refrain from doing so.

Managing to build this kind of awareness among the general public is
probably the greatest of all conservation challenges. Changing human
behavior even slightly and influencing the public perception of what is
truly valuable and worth protecting is essential. We may state in action
plans that public awareness is needed, but does anyone listen? Too often,
no one does. In addition to doing our work as scientists and individuals
committed to marine conservation, it is therefore necessary to envisage
effective ways of conveying our conservation message directly to the
general public.

Giovanni Bearzi
Tethys Research Institute, Viale G.B. Gadio 2, 20121 Milano, Italy;
e-mail: bearzi at inwind.it

-To submit a message to MARMAM, send it to: marmam at lists.uvic.ca
-Please include your name and e-mail address in the body of the
text of all submissions.
-To subscribe to MARMAM, go to lists.uvic.ca/mailman/listinfo/marmam
-To contact the MARMAM editors, write to: marmamed at uvic.ca

More information about the MARMAM mailing list