Why protected areas matter

This summer when you visit the seaside you might come across a stretch of beach that’s off limits – a coastal ’marine protected area’. You might get annoyed when looking down at that empty glorious soft sand, and then have to turn back to that tourist packed, noise polluted beach…why would anyone do this to you? Don’t take it personally, an off limit beach isn’t there to offend, it serves a purpose. It’s a special place that has been set aside to protect a wild animal, plant, or habitat.

Just think, if you wouldn’t enjoy a beach jammed with tourists, what animal would? Take sea turtles, who burrow their eggs in the sand – tourists on the beach can only mean one thing: a mixture of scrambled eggs and sand. Even worse, sea turtles wouldn’t dare venture up onto a beach in the first place if they spotted people sprawled on towels, children running around, kites flying, and beach volleyball courts.

Obviously, an area that’s protected doesn’t mean you can’t go to another beach to sunbathe, take a dip and enjoy – it’s just that some of the coast needs to be shared with wild animals and plants that wouldn’t otherwise survive if people were around.

Misconceptions run deep for marine protected areas, such as Natura 2000 sites, as they are often seen as blocking economic and human pleasures. But what does it actually mean to protect a marine site? Indeed, one of the purposes can be to limit some activities to safeguard a cliff because it’s an important seabird breeding site, or protect a vital offshore feeding ground for whales, or even a key reef habitat for sustaining corals (yes we have corals in Europe!). However, it also means encouraging sustainable human activities that have limited impact on sea creatures or habitats within that site. So a protected area doesn’t always mean forbidding all human activity, rather it’s about re-adjusting them so they fit in with the needs of marine conservation.

Let’s take a look at fisheries. It sometimes seems like most fishers are unhappy with marine protected areas. The truth is they have yet to come to grips with what it means to their fishery if they lose that important sandbank community, coral fish refuge, or top predator like the shark. But there’s also a growing force of fishers out there who recognize this and strongly believe that their livelihoods depend on healthy seas, and that marine protected areas play a vital role in achieving this. These are the fishers who are crucial to making protected areas work for both nature conservation and ensuring that we have fish on our dinner plates tomorrow.

Read more on how Marine Protected Areas are established and how they work here.

Bruna Campos, EU Marine & Fisheries Policy Officer, BirdLife Europe

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