Ocean Currents

Good News: Protecting the Ocean Pays Off

Bait ball around kelp in Channel Islands

Around the world, people are discovering that protection of the ocean in coastal areas makes sense both for the environment and the economy. Marine reserves, much like the network that was just completed off of the coast of California have been highly beneficial to local economies, sometimes in as little as five years.

Evidence of these positive results was recently published by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and Ocean Conservancy Board Member, Enric Sala and seven colleagues in a study entitled, “A General Business Model for Marine Reserves.” The study shows that protecting biodiversity can create economic benefits through increased tourism, enhanced fisheries value and/or maintenance of ecosystem services.

Among the numerous findings, Sala noted that “what we showed with the modeling is that a reserve’s value can be greater than its pre-reserve value in as little as five years. So reserves not only have ecological benefits in terms of protecting biodiversity, but they are also a good business.”

Such conservation – conservation that’s good for business – should be replicated elsewhere. With that in mind, Sala proposes a general framework that can be adapted to local contexts. In his interview with Brian Clark Howard of National Geographic, Sala recommends that communities considering marine reserves should:

Ask what are the costs of a reserve, which are costs of management and opportunity cost (typically, loss of fishing revenue). Then you expect to have some increased revenue in fishing in the area in a few years and increase in tourism. So you can put together a business plan with projected cash flows.

Though Sala did not use California’s marine reserves as part of his study, similar research here has shown that reserves have benefitted both fisheries and tourism throughout the California coast. For Example, the Channel Islands’ fully protected marine reserves cover 21 percent of the Islands’ waters and were established in 2003.  Researchers found the value of tourism and recreational fishing has increased each year in the Islands since the reserves were created. Meanwhile, commercial landings for some of the largest fisheries in Islands waters – squid, urchin, lobster and crab – also increased.

Further north at the marine protected areas (MPAs) on the Central Coast, researchers found that after five years, protected areas have seen an increase in both total and average individual revenue for the region’s commercial fishermen, in conjunction with an increase in economically important species like cabezon, lingcod and black rockfish. Such increases in fishing revenue following the creation of these reserves are highly encouraging whether they can be attributed to the completion of the MPAs or not.

The tourism industry on the Central coast has seen economic benefits as well. For instance, charter boat operators conducting non-fishing activities in the region report that MPAs are having a positive impact on their businesses, through increased recreational diving and research charters.

Around the world, numerous studies of marine reserves echo the results that are being seen on the Central Coast: no-take reserves benefit protected ecosystems in terms of increased species size, density and diversity.  With these results in mind, Sala is right to say that the time has come that we “move away from the view that it is either conservation or development. Actually, we show that they go hand in hand.” Instead, we should start viewing protection of ocean ecosystems as smart for both the environment and the economy.


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