Protection is always a hot topic these days. People from various walks of life clamber to associate themselves with all kinds of movements; Save the Whales, Save the Oceans, Save the Planet! These environmentalist movements all seek to raise awareness and protect something which is at risk, typically from ourselves or our own activities. For my part, I am happy to put my hand up and associate myself with these groups but as a marine biologist, I always try to balance at what point do we reach the optimum level of protection for a given cause without it slipping into ideological positions.
Some people will advocate for complete protection of everything. Marine reserves (MR), marine protected areas (MPA) or areas of special scientific interest (ASSI) are all examples of this kind of thinking. No animal or plant is specifically protected from fishing, rather, if they remain within designated borders they are safe. This option has worked particularly well in Galapagos and the Azures as it tends to preserve the ecosystem provided the area is large enough. The thinking behind this is that any excess life which seeks shelter outside the reserve is fair game for people to harvest.
Another approach is to target the animal specifically under threat. Locally, we have a tuna fishing season window which only allows certain techniques to be used during a specific hunting window or tonnage quota. This approach limits hunting activities and hence the damage done to the local populations to certain periods of the year. The other option is hunting bans during critical times in the animals life-cycle. We employ this strategy to protect octopus during their breeding season. This allows them to get on with the important task of ensuring the next generation are born before any removal takes place.
The common theme with these strategies is that they look at limiting a localised activity within a specific area or time frame and most people would probably agree that this is good initial step. But, how far should this protection be implemented and how do we differentiate between activities which are simply harmful to the environment and activities that have a negative impact on the animals but which can provide useful conservational data, like tag and release fishing?
Taking the cetacean protocol as an example; Gibraltar has a well-regulated dolphin and whale programme to protect these magnificent creatures from human activities. Local operators adhere to a cetacean protocol which limits approach vectors, speeds and harassment based on specific animal behaviours. Our operators are expected to monitor the animals behaviour during the encounter and to cut it short if required. All great stuff in principle. But in practice, this protocol cannot possibly be applied to commercial vessels whom might enter the bay for bunkering services effectively making these vessels exempt. Bunkering vessels also generate the most noise which can interfere with cetacean communications and at present levels, is one of the main environmental concerns for these animals. With so much bunkering activity in the bay, our local pods are being forced further and further out into the Strait to seek some peace and quiet.
In these circumstances, does the cetacean protocol go far enough? Should bunkering activity also be limited in Gibraltar’s bay? If we were to implement a change like this, the financial implications to our economy would be clear as day; notwithstanding that those ships would probably just seek bunkering services from our neighbour’s opposite. Fundamentally, how is the balance reached between environmental impacts and our economic interests? Further, how often would we need to adjust that balance, one way or the other, as the data continuously rolls in?
One way that works is to employ eco-tourism as an effective way of offsetting the cost to declining industry. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef sees millions of divers every year and not all of the operators necessarily adhere to the guidelines verbatim. As a result, coral can be damaged by divers without the proper training crashing into the reef. This is harmful locally, to that particular coral, but when looking at the effect across the whole reef, eco-tourism suddenly becomes profitable. This extra money can also serve as the investment vehicle to further protect the reef. Suddenly, a natural resource like the Great Barrier Reef, is providing people with jobs whilst paying for its own protection, which is enforced by the very people whose jobs depend on it.
Can this work in Gibraltar? Sure it can, but not if we heavily restrict access to the resource. What sense does that make in an environment where most of the damage is coming from the commercial activities rather than recreational ones? This is not to say that recreational activities should not be controlled mind you, rather, that presently, the restrictions on commercial activities are almost nil.
Sadly, commercial activities are set to rise which will exert more pressure on the environment and reducing its abundance and diversity. With time, this will further reduce our ability to introduce eco-tourism to our shores. So, as a community, there is an important question to be asked here; do we value our natural environment or good economics, because it will become almost impossible to choose both and, as always, the choice we make will determine the type of coastline we pass on to our children.