Marine Reserves: The Great Environmental Policy Conundrum

Eighteenth century reverend and political economist Thomas Malthus believed that population tends to grow “geometrically,” or, as we would say in today’s world, exponentially. If our world is a finite one, then this means that the “per capita” share of our goods must steadily decrease. Draconian no? Barbaric, perhaps.

Can the 18th/19th-century utilitarian economics and legal scholar Jeremy Bentham’s goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” i.e. utilitarianism be realized? Has it been realized? Probably not. For two reasons. Firstly, from our study of calculus, we know it is mathematically impossible to maximize two variables at once. Von Neumann and Morgenstern made this explicitly clear whilst defining for us our beloved theory of partial differential equations. Secondly, to live, we must have a source of energy for maintaining us and for allowing us to do work. Can we have enough if resources are not available to all?

Adam Smith, 18th-century Scottish sociologist/political economist, postulated the “invisible hand,” the idea that an individual who goes squarely after his own gain is led by some invisible force to promote the public interest. He contributed to a tendency that has ever since interfered in the policy making of nations throughout the world and has interfered with positive action based on rational analysis – that we has living, breathing, bipedal individuals will make the best decisions for an entire society.

If this is correct in all senses then we can fairly assume that we will control our individual fecundity as to produce an optimum population to consume resources. If not, a reexamination is necessary.

These theories are central to the decision-making process for environmental policy making, and lead us to the crux of this piece: the commons, or as Foster Lloyd so eloquently put it, “the tragedy of the commons.” We have all heard of this before. It is the classic rebuttal of Smith’s “invisible hand” population control scenario developed through rational beings seeking to maximize their welfare. Rational beings ask themselves, “What is the utility to me of adding one more thing to my lot?” The utility has one negative aspect and one positive aspect.

The positive aspect is the addition of that extra thing to your lot. The negative aspect is the additional use or over-use of necessary resources that everyone needs. When we add these two aspects, i.e. partial utilities, the only sensible thing to do is to add more and more and more resources, ergo maximizing our own welfare. However, this is the conclusion held by most of us when participating in a common pool. Therein lies the tragedy. Each individual is compelled to increase their well-being without limit in a limited world that runs the ruin of all.

Fishing, moreover, large-scale commercial fishing comes to mind as an example of a “tragedy of the commons” scenario. We have all heard the horror stories found in many reports and papers denoting the decline of our important fisheries due to welfare maximizing mega-fishing corporations fishing the seas dry. Leading marine ecologists and conservationists have thus called for the implementation of full-scale, no-take marine reserves as the antithesis to the free-for-all.

According to the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), there are over 6800 marine protected areas worldwide. What they do is to close off the “commons” to its own self-made tragedy in order to cultivate lost marine habitat and resuscitate depleted fisheries. Many ecologists and conservations promote the “spill-over” effect reserves are meant to have, namely that once fish stocks are rehabilitated to a certain point, they will “spill-over” outside reserve “borders”, thus replenishing fish stocks beyond.

Well, there is catch. Marine reserves are a way to control human behaviour en masse. Many reserves worldwide have been planned from the top-down and have failed to curtain the “tragedy of the commons.” Many existing marine reserves fail to contribute positively to marine systems, which constitute major “opportunity costs” in the form of time and space for regular, everyday fishers. They are designed in an environment that has traditionally been regarded as open-access commons, or organized under some indigenous legal codex.

Many formalize and integrate resource management in such a way that they ultimately displace the designation of more representative areas as competition for space, and resources outside reserve boundaries becomes more intense. They create a race-to-the-bottom in the form of conflict over scarce fishing grounds. This has happened in South Australia as well as in the Caribbean where there have been deadly conflicts among fishers and between fishers and scientists.

The success of marine reserves in fisheries management and attempting to control the commons will depend on a careful matching of the attributes of a marine ecosystem, social environment and governance structures. Kelleher and Kenchington argued that having a variety of possible configurations gives scope for sensible resolutions of resource use.However, I put it to a question. Can “we” ever hope to control the “commons” and if we could, is it actually a good thing?