Oceans form incredible habitats that provide immense benefits in tourism, fisheries and coastal protection. Think about coral reefs, mangrove forests and other near-shore marine habitats, systems that are closely tied to people’s socio-economic and cultural values. However, over the last several decades, tremendous changes have taken place so fast that it has confused most of the people who have always depended on the oceans. From over-fishing, destructive fishing, pollution and climate change, the ocean systems are deteriorating so fast that predictions are towards functional extinction in the near future. It’s very evident that nobody wants to lose all these ocean values thus everybody is thinking of or looking for a way out.
Looking at what has worked or not, is it important? Managing marine ecosystems is a challenge. First; the ocean is an open system and vast, which is very difficult to enforce or control. People will go out fishing and if they don’t get enough they will put more effort the following day and eventually the situation gets worse. Marine protected areas were widely acknowledged as an effective tool that would get us out. With the ability to act as a refugia and breeding ground where fish would grow in abundance and biomass and spill over to areas that are open to fishing, these come with their challenges-; their management. Initially most of them were centrally-managed, mainly designed and managed by central governments with limited or no engagement of the local communities. There are also limited perceived benefits to the communities and conflicting interests among the different users. These areas were closed for extractive activities and open to tourism. While anyone working in tourism will be happy to embrace the idea, since the better the condition, the better the business for them. But what about the fishermen? What would make them support these protected area that have pushed them away from their fishing ground without any meaningful incentive? While they have had their success stories, centrally-managed protected areas have never realized their full potential.
Over the last decade especially along the East African coast , there has been a rise of locally managed marine areas (LMMAs). This is where communities established an area with some kind of restrictions; completely no-take, gear restricted or periodic closure. LMMAs have solved some of the challenges faced by centrally-managed protected areas. Giving the communities direct dependent on the marine resource ownership and lead-role in their management. They have been greatly embraced as partly solution to the management of marine resources. They have their challenges which are; limited managerial capacity of the community members especially on issues such as financial management often causing conflicts among their members and limited funding. It is clear that these forms of management might offer a better solution than some of other strategies if communities are properly assisted.
The take home question would be what to do with already established centrally-managed marine areas. Case example, while no-take zone (parks) in Kenya has contributed significantly to the management of marine resources, reserves which are gear-restricted have not performed well. They are highly over exploited and there is no difference between them and complete open areas. Will it help if they are passed on to communities that have been properly trained to run them? Or can there be co-management with the government agencies?