In what should be good news for India’s neglected seas, Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment & Forest, has promised to address  the bias towards terrestrial biodiversity conservation in India, by getting his ministry to pay more attention to marine conservation. Promising to expand the marine protected area network to better serve the needs of endangered species protection, Ramesh also stressed the neglected role that healthy oceans play in sequestering carbon.

If translated into action, this will definitely be good news. However the Minister will need to ensure that the mistakes made with other Marine Protected Areas in India are not repeated. Most importantly, the government needs to win over local fishing communities who might be impacted by MPAs, by a process of consultation that effectively addresses and resolves livelihood concerns. Experience shows us that MPAs that do not have community support are hard to enforce and only succeed in turning communities against conservation per se.

In reality, conservation measures that are sensibly implemented can bring significant benefits to fishing communities. At a time when India’s fisheries are struggling to cope with the rapid expansion in mechanized fishing capacity and the spread of destructive fishing techniques, measures to protect our fisheries are sorely needed. India has much to learn from experiences elsewhere. Marine Protected areas in locations such as Apo Island in the Philippines, Egypt  and St. Kitts in the Caribbean have led to an increase in fish catch in adjacent areas. In such locations, the local community is the strongest supporter of the MPA.

This happens because when fishing is restricted or controlled in one area, such as through a marine reserve, fish have a chance to grow, reach maturity and give birth to more offspring. The ‘spillover’ effect brings economic benefits for (sustainable) fisheries in adjacent waters.

The other side of the coin is the threat posed to marine areas by development projects. In the past, the presence of marine protected areas has proved to be not much more than a speed bump in the way of development projects (the examples are many - Dhamra port near Gahirmatha, oil and port infrastructure in and near the Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, the Sethu Samudram canal near the Gulf of Mannar National Park). If Jairam Ramesh and the Ministry of Environment want to be taken seriously, they will have to start saying no to commercial projects in and around Marine Protected Areas.  

What’s beyond the horizon?

While the focus on increasing coastal protected areas is welcome, we also need to start looking at conservation measures in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone. As the world’s fisheries operations are desperately scouring the high seas for the last remaining fish, India’s conservation planners need to start looking beyond the horizon. We know little or nothing of our EEZ from the point of biodiversity conservation. Which areas in the EEZ are worthy of protection, for which species, what threats do they face? To what extent are India’s deep seas being plundered by illegal foreign fishing vessels? The questions are many, the answers hard to come by. If Jairam Ramesh can get the state machinery to start addressing some of these questions, he will have done a world of service to India’s seas and the millions that depend on them.