The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-darwin-initiative


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Life Below Water – Conserving Marine Areas

This is the second in our series of Darwin blogs celebrating the remarkable and innovative ways Darwin projects contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 14 – “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. Our last blog explored two projects in the Western Pacific’s Coral Triangle, working to minimise unsustainable shark fishing and implementing collaborative community schemes to better manage seagrass beds.

This blog looks at projects working to establish marine protected areas. With the first project, we travel to Belize and look at a protected area in the heart of the Mesoamerican Reef. From the Caribbean Sea we then move to the South Atlantic to learn about the Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary Project and their plans to establish the largest marine reserve in the Atlantic.

Conservation and socioeconomic benefits of a marine protected area at Glover’s Atoll, Belize

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are now common, and have evoked considerable public interest. They have become one of the more popular tools within an ecosystem-based management approach because they are able to balance environmental health and biodiversity conservation with the socio-economic needs of fishing communities across the world’s oceans.

Areas within MPAs where all extractive use is prohibited are traditionally referred to as ‘no-take areas’. However in Belize the term ‘replenishment zone’ (RZ) has recently been adopted in place of ‘no-take zone’. ‘Replenishment zone’ has a less negative connotation for resource users concerned about being restricted from fishing in traditional waters.

Belize 22-014 Spiny lobster is the most important fishery and the largest seafood export for Belize, Credit - Alex Tewfik

Spiny lobster is the most important fishery and the largest seafood export for Belize, Credit – Alex Tewfik

This Darwin project, led by the WCS Belize Programme, works with fishers in Belize to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fisheries they rely on, particularly queen conch and Caribbean spiny lobster. The cooperation of local fishers is crucial, and so their perception of the role of these protected areas is pivotal to project success. Interventions are focused on the Glover’s Reef Atoll which has an area of 350 km2 and lies approximately 42 km east of the central Belizean mainland. This atoll is 1 of 7 protected areas that comprise the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

A study carried out through the project demonstrates the positive impact of protection within the RZ. Importantly they also identify the benefits of RZs for small scale fisher livelihoods. The benefits observed following the establishment and enforcement of the RZ at Glover’s Atoll have been supported by a broader set of fisheries conservation strategies, such as size limits, closed seasons, and species bans. The sustainability of this approach will be assured by continuing long-term community consultations that support the core objectives for the management of GRMR, enhancing economic benefits for Belizean fishers.

The results of this research (published in Marine Ecology Progress Series) will also be used to inform the ever-evolving conservation and management strategies employed by WCS across Belize. Ultimately the aim is to achieve a balance between biodiversity and ecosystem services protection, including fisheries and tourism-based livelihoods. Doing so will help to secure the future of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Belize Barrier Reef System, and will generate findings with broader applicability across the Mesoamerican Reef.

Belize 22-014 A free diver searches for Queen Conch within Glover's atoll lagoon ,Credit - Alex Tewfik cropped

A free diver searches for Queen Conch within Glover’s Atoll lagoon, Credit – Alex Tewfik

The Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary: Planning for the Atlantic’s largest marine reserve

Although many people would struggle to find it on a map, the remote UK Overseas Territory of Ascension Island is on the verge of entering the ‘big league’ of ocean conservation, joining such notable company as the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands as home to one of the world’s largest marine reserves.

The intention to close at least 50% of Ascension’s 440,000 km2 exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to all forms of commercial fishing by 2019 was formally announced by the UK Government at the UN Our Oceans summit in September 2016 and will establish the largest fully no-take MPA in the Atlantic Ocean. Providing the scientific and technical data to support these decisions is currently the focus of a Darwin Plus project led by the Ascension Island Government Conservation & Fisheries Department and the University of Exeter.

The Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary (ASIOS) Project aims to address many of the challenges and controversies common to all remote, large-scale MPAs: How can it be enforced? How effectively will it conserve the highly mobile species of the open ocean? How do we measure its success? The project is also responding to the mandate of local and UK Government stakeholders to assess whether an economically-viable and well-managed fishery can coexist with a future MPA in a portion of the EEZ, and, if so, which areas should be protected.

Galapagos DPLUS063 Aggregation of Galapagos sharks, Credit - Ascension Island Government Conservation and Fisheries Dept

A Galapagos shark being released after fitting acoustic tag, Credit – British Antarctic Survey

Oceanic islands and seamounts are known to be hotspots of abundance and diversity for pelagic species and are obvious focal points for the creation of marine reserves. In order to better understand the scale of their ‘bio-aggregating’ effect, the ASIOS project team surveyed the biodiversity of three previously unstudied seamounts lying 260-320 km to the south and west of Ascension. To determine how large an area needs protecting, the expedition set out to measure how the abundance and diversity of marine life at all levels of the food chain varies with distance from each mount, as well as mapping the movements of individual top predators associated with them. These datasets will hopefully provide a rare insight into the “biodiversity footprint” of a tropical seamount system that can contribute to MPA planning on Ascension and beyond.

With less than two years until designation there is still much to be done; however, with the support of Darwin Plus, the European Union’s BEST 2.0 initiative and other donors, the Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary promises to put the Territory firmly on the map as a global leader in MPA science and management.

For the complete articles on these projects, and a variety of other interesting updates from Darwin coastal and marine projects, see the latest Darwin Newsletter themed on “Life Below Water”. For more information on WCS’s project in Belize see here, and for more information on the Ascension Island MPA see here.

Our next blog will look at the International Year of the Reef.

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Life Below Water – Darwin in the Coral Triangle

In the February 2018 Darwin Newsletter we explored some of the amazing Darwin supported projects contributing to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 14 – “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. Darwin projects work towards SDG14 in a range of ways, including improving coastal ecosystem management, combatting overfishing, and expanding scientific understanding of marine species and ecosystems.

The articles below provide an insight into two Darwin projects working in the Western Pacific’s Coral Triangle – one an effort to protect sharks from overfishing, the other a collaborative approach to managing seagrass beds.

Sustainably managing shark fishing for livelihoods and food security in Indonesia

Lying at the heart of the Coral Triangle, Indonesia is a global hotspot for marine biodiversity with high levels of shark richness and endemism. It is also the world’s largest shark fishing nation, with average annual catch exceeding 100,000 tonnes per year.

Shark fisheries have existed in Indonesia for centuries. Fisheries are often small-scale, mixed-species and difficult to monitor due to their informal nature and widespread distribution. High value fins are exported to international markets, while non-fin products including meat and skin are consumed domestically. This million-dollar industry employs thousands of people, from fishers to processors to traders, and holds significant social value as a tradition, culture and ‘safety-net’ source of animal protein.

Indonesia 22-008 Dried fin on Muncar, Java, Credit - Benaya Simeon (WCS-IP2)

Dried fin on Muncar, Java, Credit – Benaya Simeon (WCS-IP2)

Tanjung Luar, a small village in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara province, has drawn attention because of its open shark landings, proximity to high-end tourism resorts, and negative portrayal of local fishers in the international media. More than 6,000 individual sharks and rays across 82 different species are landed in Tanjung Luar each year, by a targeted long-line fishing fleet of roughly 50 vessels. High grade shark fins from some of these species can fetch more than USD $100 per kg for the first buyer. This high price, and a lack of other legal, sustainable alternatives, makes implementing shark conservation in Tanjung Luar extremely challenging.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Indonesia, with financial support from the Darwin Initiative, is seeking to balance the complex trade-offs between shark conservation and socioeconomics through a nuanced, pragmatic, and ethical approach. They support the government and fishing communities to implement fisheries management and marine protected area interventions at the local level. In Tanjung Luar they are helping to identify and incentivise the adoption of more selective and sustainable fishing practices, whilst also reducing barriers to more sustainable livelihoods. They believe that these site based efforts will set an example for shark conservation efforts in other parts of Indonesia, the Coral Triangle and throughout the world.

Collaborating to save seagrass: communities in Timor-Leste embrace a new opportunity for conservation

Monda Costa stands chest deep in the sea. The baking mid-morning sun illuminates the blue water as she peers at a square on the seafloor. Two others from Monda’s home island of Ataúro and a Blue Ventures volunteer assess the same ground.

Where an untrained eye would only see drab plants, the team recognises and records two species of seagrass – Thalassia hemprichii and Syringodium isoetifolium. Their work is part of a community-based monitoring (CBM) programme established by Blue Ventures to involve Ataúro’s residents in collecting baseline data on seagrass beds – a first step in longer-term efforts to empower communities to protect these and other threatened habitats.

Seagrass survey © Blue Ventures Christina Saylor

Ataúro’s community members take part in a seagrass survey, Credit – Christina Saylor, Blue Ventures

Seagrasses are flowering plants that form meadows in shallow waters. These meadows are ecological superstars. They trap carbon and produce oxygen, act as nurseries for young reef fish and provide grazing grounds for crowd-pleasing animals like green turtles and dugongs. Protecting these valuable habitats is a priority in Timor Leste, but scientists, community members and decision makers need more information about the location, composition and use of existing seagrass beds.

In Timor-Leste, the power for change lies within each community. Establishing locally-managed marine areas is a decision made and enforced by villages through the customary law of tara bandu. Informed voices are a critical part of this decision-making.

CBM participants receive training on the ecological role and the economic value of seagrass meadows. They also learn technical skills for conducting surveys – from laying measuring tape on the seafloor to identifying species and sediment types. Training is voluntary, but once they pass certification tests, surveyors are paid for their time.

“I can now tell my community about why seagrass is important for the fish and why it’s good to protect the seagrass beds. Seagrasses provide food for fish, turtles and other animals. And one day more tourists will come and want to see the seagrass and the fish and turtles,” says Monda. “We don’t want people from outside to decide how our resources are used. We need to control and protect our resources.”

Monda and team conducting a survey © Blue Ventures Christina Saylor

Monda and team conducting a survey, Credit – Christina Saylor, Blue Ventures

For the complete articles on these projects, and a variety of other interesting updates from Darwin coastal and marine projects, see the latest Darwin Newsletter themed on ”Life Below Water”. For more information on WCS Indonesia’s work on sustainable fishing see here, and to find out more about Monda Costa and the Blue Ventures’ Community Based Monitoring Programme, see here.

Tune in for our upcoming blog posts exploring new marine reserves and protected areas, and to learn all about the International Year of the Reef.