Marine protected areas (MPAs) are increasingly established worldwide to protect and restore degraded ecosystems. However, the level of protection varies among MPAs and has been found to affect the outcome of the closure. In no-take zones (NTZs), no fishing or extraction of marine organisms is allowed. The EU Commission recently committed to protect 30% of European waters by 2030 through the updated Biodiversity Strategy. Importantly, one third of these 30% should be of strict protection. Exactly what is meant by strict protection is not entirely clear, but fishing would likely have to be fully or largely prohibited in these areas. This new target for strictly protected areas highlights the need to evaluate the ecological effects of NTZs, particularly in regions like northern Europe where such evaluations are scarce. The Swedish NTZs made up approximately two thirds of the total areal extent of NTZs in Europe a decade ago. Given that these areas have been closed for at least 10 years and can provide insights into long-term effects of NTZs on fish and ecosystems, they are of broad interest in light of the new 10% strict protection by 2030 commitment by EU member states.
A new report from SLU Aqua examines the long-term effects of no-take zones in Swedish waters.
In total, eight NTZs in Swedish coastal and offshore waters were evaluated in the current report, with respect to primarily the responses of focal species for the conservation measure, but in some of the areas also ecosystem responses. Five of the NTZs were established in 2009-2011, as part of a government commission, while the other three had been established earlier. The results of the evaluations are presented in a synthesis and also in separate, more detailed chapters for each of the eight NTZs. Overall, the results suggest that NTZs can increase abundances and biomasses of fish and decapod crustaceans, given that the closed areas are strategically placed and of an appropriate size in relation to the life cycle of the focal species. A meta-regression of the effects on focal species of the NTZs showed that CPUE was on average 2.6 times higher after three years of protection, and 3.8 times higher than in the fished reference areas after six years of protection. The proportion of old and large individuals increased in most NTZs, and thereby also the reproductive potential of populations. The increase in abundance of large predatory fish also likely contributed to restoring ecosystem functions, such as top-down control. These effects appeared after a 5-year period and in many cases remained and continued to increase in the longer term (>10 years). In the two areas where cod was the focal species of the NTZs, positive responses were weak, likely as an effect of long-term past, and in the Kattegat still present, recruitment overfishing. In the Baltic Sea, predation by grey seal and cormorant was in some cases so high that it likely counteracted the positive effects of removing fisheries and led to stock declines in the NTZs. In most cases, the introduction of the NTZs has likely decreased the total fishing effort rather than displacing it to adjacent areas. In the Kattegat NTZ, however, the purpose was explicitly to displace an unselective coastal mixed bottom-trawl fishery targeting Norway lobster and flatfish to areas where the bycatches of mature cod were smaller. In two areas that were reopened to fishing after 5 years, the positive effects of the NTZs on fish stocks eroded quickly to pre-closure levels despite that the areas remained closed during the spawning period, highlighting that permanent closures may be necessary to maintain positive effects.
We conclude from the Swedish case studies that NTZs may well function as a complement to other fisheries management measures, such as catch, effort and gear regulations. The experiences from the current evaluation show that NTZs can be an important tool for fisheries management especially for local coastal fish populations and areas with mixed fisheries, as well as in cases where there is a need to counteract adverse ecosystem effects of fishing. NTZs are also needed as reference for marine environmental management, and for understanding the effects of fishing on fish populations and other ecosystem components in relation to other pressures. MPAs where the protection of both fish and their habitats is combined may be an important instrument for ecosystembased management, where the recovery of large predatory fish may lead to a restoration of important ecosystem functions and contribute to improving decayed habitats.
With the new Biodiversity Strategy, EUs level of ambition for marine conservation increases significantly, with the goal of 30% of coastal and marine waters protected by 2030, and, importantly, one third of these areas being strictly protected. From a conservation perspective, rare, sensitive and/or charismatic species or habitats are often in focus when designating MPAs, and displacement of fisheries is then considered an unwanted side effect. However, if the establishment of strictly protected areas also aims to rebuild fish stocks, these MPAs should be placed in heavily fished areas and designed to protect depleted populations by accounting for their home ranges to generate positive outcomes. Thus, extensive displacement of fisheries is required to reach benefits for depleted populations, and need to be accounted for e.g. by specific regulations outside the strictly protected areas. These new extensive EU goals for MPA establishment pose a challenge for management, but at the same time offer an opportunity to bridge the current gap between conservation and fisheries management.
Bergström, U., Berkström, C., Sköld, M. (eds.), Börjesson, P., Eggertsen, M., Fetterplace, L., Florin, A-B., Fredriksson, R., Fredriksson, S., Kraufvelin, P., Lundström, K., Nilsson, J., Ovegård, M., Perry, D., Sundelöf, A., Wikström, A., Wennhage, H. (2022) Long-term effects of no-take zones in Swedish waters. Aqua reports 2022:20. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. 289 pp.