Myths and fallacies exposed, part 6

dissected by Dr J Floor Anthoni (2003)
(text in blue is ours)

For comments, suggestions and improvements, e-mail Floor Anthoni
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Sharks circle Marine Reserves Bill
Forest and Bird publication Conservation News August 2003 edition

The Marine Reserves Bill is under siege from a range of commercial, recreational and Maori fishers. The concept of protecting the oceans in the same way we protect areas on land is under sustained threat. The ethic of guardianship and stewardship, which includes protection, has got lost in the ensuing debate.

The reality is rather different. F&B repeatedly make the mistake of treating the sea as if it were land. But those people working with the sea, knowing it more intimately, do not make such a blunder. Likewise protecting the ocean is not the same as protecting the land and this idea is also understandably rejected by fishermen. The claim of lost guardianship and stewardship is plainly wrong, since this is precisely what fishers are doing and what they are aiming for.
Recreational fishers, some with funding help from commercial fishers, are opposing the Marine Reserves Bill and its approach to no-take representative reserves. The Bill has also got snarled in the controversy over ownership of the foreshore and seabed and Maori customary rights.
Wrong again. Recreational fishers are not funded by commercial fishers. All these people are sacrificing their free time and personal funds to fight for better solutions to save the seas. By contrast, groups like Forest and Bird are funded by DoC and local and regional government for their marine reserve proposals and consultations. There is a growing groundswell of anti sentiment against the proposed Marine Reserves Bill because it is flawed in many ways. If this Bill flounders, it is because it does not stand up to scrutiny. If it passes, it is because of so many ignorant people in the decision process.
It is time the government untangled marine reserves from the debate over aquaculture and fishing, and focused on the benefits of reserves for all New Zealanders and especially the fish.
Marine reserves are about (not) fishing. Scientists claim that reserves benefit fisheries and fishes. So fishing cannot be taken out of the equation. It is an essential part of the debate. Nobody at Forest & Bird will be affected by a fishing closure, but fishermen will. So it is only fair to listen to what they have to say.
Recreational line fishing, and not just commercial fishing; can have significant impacts on fish populations. Recent research at the Poor Knights Marine Reserve has shown that three reef species known to be targeted by recreational fishers, snapper, tarakihi and pink maomao, increased in density by 302%, 101% and 129%, respectively, after one year of complete protection from all fishing.
What this research also shows is that these fish have arrived from outside the reserve because they could not possibly have grown from larvae in the course of one year. It shows that the fish caught in the reserve are in fact migrant and that the fish will come and go and that the marine reserve does not protect them. It must also be noted that the research was done in the warm 'good' years of La Niña type, when fish densities are higher than in other years. Quite mischievously, scientists compared the high summer counts with the low winter counts. But more deceptively, they hid the counts of other reef fishes which all declined like in a fishery collapse.
The Marine Reserves Bill is important for expanding the network of marine reserves and bringing the legislation into the 21st century. For example, the current Act prevents consideration of the conservation of seabirds when proposing or assessing a marine reserve application. The Bill allows all marine life to be considered.
The Bill has only one page relating to the environment. Over 80 pages are devoted to policy and enforcement. All sea birds are sufficiently protected by other means. Where they are threatened by fishing, methods can be improved as is already done. Where an intertidal zone needs protecting, a number of other options are open. The more important matter often overlooked, is that the Marine Reserves Act is completely unnecessary and superfluous. It has always been a costly mistake, since all manners of marine protection are already provided for in the Fisheries Act which can even protect sea birds and sea mammals.
Less than one percent of mainland New Zealand is protected by marine reserves (about 16,000 ha). This is less than New Zealand's smallest national park, Abel Tasman. DoC's Great Barrier Island proposal at 50,000 ha is the first reasonable sized mainland reserve.
Again a false comparison. National Parks are still under threat from introduced predators, grazers, invasive plants and diseases. By comparison, the sea is more pristine everywhere, even without any protection. But marine reserves do not protect against its main threat, pollution from the land. It appears that F&B measures the success of marine conservation by numbers rather than quality. Why is it ignorant of the fact that two out of three existing marine reserves fail to protect the environment as they degrade further from year to year?
The Government is only proposing reserves for less than 10 percent of the coast. Even with the addition of cable exclusion areas, nearly 90 percent of the territorial sea will be available for fishing.
Again a numbers game. The real question should be whether there is a better way. Where is the proof that coastal marine reserves are working? Even the Goat Island marine reserve is degrading, having lost its kelp forest in 1993, its crayfish in 1998 and its sea urchins in 2000.
Australia is achieving much more than New Zealand in establishing large marine reserves. These have been created around Australia's sub-Antarctic islands and around parts of mainland Australia. A current proposal would protect 30 percent of the Great Barrier Reef from fishing.
What Australia is doing, is its own business. We're not in a race. New Zealand should find its own ways and show the courage to do so. New Zealand has also large reserves around its offshore islands, the Kermadecs and Auckland Islands, and these have a good chance of working. New Zealand also has large no-take zones around some 20 seamounts. To compare this country with the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef is out of place. In Australia there is tremendous opposition against the 30% protection plan, knowing that the main threats to the reef come from the land, threats for which marine reserves offer no protection.
Benefits of marine reserves include:


MPA News casts doubt over validity of marine reserves research
Two important articles, abbreviated, December 2003
Editor's note: Theory holds that no-take marine reserves can increase fish populations outside their boundaries via export of larvae and spillover of adults.  But definitive evidence of that effect can be difficult to show due to an array of challenges, including setting adequate control sites in complex ocean environments and handling the costs of scientific monitoring.  As a result, concerns are expressed about reserve studies falling short of following what would ordinarily be considered scientifically robust protocols.  (Similar concerns exist with respect to data used in fisheries, coastal, and pollution management.)
Along this line, MPA News presents two perspective pieces.  The first, by a team of fisheries biologists from New Zealand, calls on scientists to apply greater rigor to their reserve studies.  The second, by British biologists, iterates the many obstacles involved in demonstrating spillover effects of marine reserves.

Taken together, they can be viewed as posing a conundrum for marine reserve managers, although neither was written with management concerns primarily in mind.  The dilemma: we all want the best science on reserves, but to get it will require significantly more time and money, including for long-term studies of sites both before and after their protection.

Earlier issues of MPA News have approached the subject of marine reserve science (MPA News 4:4, 4:5, and 5:3).  Our intent here is not to rehash arguments but to try to move the dialogue to another level.  Assuming that reserve effects are relatively site-specific - affected by each reserve's ecology and management - we ask readers to respond to the question:

"How can managers balance their allocations of scarce management resources among competing demands to (a) determine whether (and to what extent) spillover is occurring, and (b) otherwise provide protection, education, planning, and administration for the reserve itself?"

Or is that the appropriate question?

By Trevor Willis, Russell Millar, Russ Babcock & Nick Tolimieri (2003)
[Emphasis on selected text is ours]
Reader please note that this is a very courageous article. Kudos to the authors.

Many recent scientific papers on the subject of marine reserve effects contain statements within their introductions along the lines of "It is well known that exploited species exhibit increases in density and mean size within reserves", supported by a number of citations.  A closer look at the cited papers shows that many are review articles.  Of the empirical studies published, most present ambiguous evidence for recovery.  In fact, between 1990 and 2001, only 42% of published papers in this area contained empirical data, and many of these were difficult to interpret because of inadequate experimental design.

empirical, review and model studiesFrom the report: "We found that the number of empirical field studies has been climbing at a fairly consistent rate over the last ten years, but has recently been lagging behind the combined publication rate of reviews and theory (Fig. 1). Reading the latter papers, it is apparent that much of their raison d’être is advocacy for the establishment of marine reserves in parts of the world that lack them, rather than real attempts to contribute to the science of the field. The difference between science and advocacy in this field is becoming increasingly blurred (Polunin 2002), and we may soon be in the unusual situation of being faced with a greater number of reviews than there is reviewable material."  . . . . "Unfortunately, because of this dearth of data the models have little opportunity to compete against one another under the scientific process. Furthermore, the proliferation of models and reviews has resulted in model assumptions evolving into accepted paradigms, a case of ‘What everybody says must be true’ (Simpson 1993)." . . . . "Of the empirical studies cited, most present ambiguous evidence for recovery". The graph shows empirical field studies (solid circles), reviews and notes (open circles) and theoretical studies and computer models (solid triangles). The graph shows that actual facts lag behind fantasy by a ratio of 1:2 or worse.
In the marine reserve context there are many reasons why researchers might have limits on their sampling designs.  However, a critical evaluation of the experimental designs employed by many published studies brought to light the following problems with replication and lack of control sites:
  1.  insufficient sample replication (e.g., only one site sampled inside and outside a reserve, or no control sites sampled at all)
  2. spatial confounding (e.g., all control sites located only at one end of the reserve, so that comparisons are confounded by unknown location effects)
  3. lack of temporal replication (most studies consist of surveys done at only one time)
  4. lack of replication at the reserve level limiting the generality of results (although in many cases this reflects the number of reserves available).
  5. non-random placement of reserves - i.e., often reserves are sited to include "special" or unique features, which causes difficulties in selecting valid control sites (this is obviously no fault of the researchers).

To date, there are no studies that avoid the above problems as well as possessing a time series of "before" and "after" data.

How many studies unambiguously demonstrate significant within-reserve increases in the density of exploited species?  With a sufficiently large sample size, a statistically significant difference between two sites (separated either spatially or temporally) can almost always be obtained due simply to true natural biological variability between the sites.  That is, the null hypothesis of no difference between two biological entities is necessarily false.  If we (conservatively) use a 100% increase in density as a minimum criterion for claiming the existence of a "reserve effect", and ignore flaws in sampling design, then there are only a handful of instances where differences in density of individual species between reserve and fished areas can be regarded as biologically significant.  In many other cases, slight trends toward higher reserve densities have been described, but these were of insufficient magnitude to confidently attribute them to reserve effects, rather than real biological variability at the spatial or temporal level.  If we consider only those studies that are replicated in both time and space, to our knowledge there are only a few that establish increases in excess of 100%.

In the Goat Island marine reserve these scientists have established increases of 2500% with a dubious measuring technique called the Baited Underwater Video. They have uncritically ascribed this to a marine reserve effect rather than it being due to an exceptional hot spot. See conservation/science and conservation/FAQs.
Several theoretical studies have indicated that marine reserves can provide increases or equivalence in fisheries yields under the assumed model and parameter values.  However, if management decisions are based upon models built on unquestioned assumptions then we may find ourselves making costly errors.(hear,hear!)  We reinforce this point by noting that there have been yield models produced which respectively predict reserves can increase fishery yield, may have no effect on fishery yield, or can be detrimental to fishery yield.  Taken together, the conflicting conclusions from various plausible models lead us back to the beginning, where we must admit that, at present, we cannot predict what the effects of marine reserves might be for any given species.  While the theoretical work done to date has helped to identify and formalize competing hypotheses, it should not be used to make quantitative management decisions relating to particular species.  What is needed now is for models to be shaped by empirical data rather than being built purely from general assumptions and ancillary knowledge.

Since the management goals of marine reserves are many and varied, and the biology and ecology of exploited species also vary from place to place, the huge amount of effort currently being spent on "optimizing" marine reserve design is probably largely a waste of time and energyThere is probably no such thing as an optimal reserve - what is good for one species may not be particularly useful for another.  A more effective role for research in the context of fisheries management might be to establish what are the minimum requirements for protection of exploited species.  A return to more natural ecosystem function will probably occur as a by-product of protected areas that focus on targeted species, and more research effort should also be directed toward the effects of not fishing on unexploited species.

Indeed, by focusing on the fished species for the sake of demonstrating spectacular benefits from marine reserves, scientists have turned their backs on the unfished species which are declining from degradation.
This comment is not intended to imply criticism of those working for the establishment of marine reserves, and it is not intended to counteract the precautionary principle.  Nor should this comment be interpreted as "anti-reserve".  Rather, it is a plea for researchers to apply the same rigor to examination of the fisheries-related efficacy of marine reserves as they would apply to other environmental effects studies.  Perhaps more importantly, this plea also goes out to those in a position to fund this research.  They must ensure that adequate planning and resources are allocated to make it possible to implement rigorous survey designs, and that this is done far enough in advance of reserve establishment so that effects outside their boundaries can be detected.  Ultimately, in a field where the division between science and politics is becoming increasingly blurry, poorly conducted studies or those with major design flaws serve to undermine the credibility of scientists, and provide ammunition to those who wish to oppose reserve proposals for reasons of their own.
It is a pity that this last statement devalues the whole tenet of this otherwise excellent introspection. Only by being strictly honest can we arrive at solutions that will work. The authors are still unaware that the 'anti marine reserves' movement consists of concerned fishermen who want solutions that work. Had marine reserves proved the right solution, they would have backed these. However, fishermen's very extensive experience with the sea contradicts what scientists claim, a good reason to ask penetrating questions and to find better ways. The Seafriends web site illustrates this point very clearly.
The authors give examples of 'good' research and the use of marine reserves as controls for the understanding of 'ecosystems function' but all this research has been rebutted by us in 'science exposed', a must-read: science.htm. So what is left of research the public can depend on? Indeed very little, perhaps none.
(This piece was adapted by the authors from: Willis T.J., Millar R.B., Babcock R.C. and Tolimieri N. 2003. "Burdens of evidence and the benefits of marine reserves: putting Descartes before des horse?" Environmental Conservation 30:97-103. Copyright 2003 Foundation for Environmental Conservation). For a complete copy of this article, read burdens.pdf (260KB). It is an important article and a break-through, so please read it.
The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) was the first philosopher to describe the physical universe in terms of matter and motion. He was a pioneer in the attempt to formulate simple, universal laws of motion that govern all physical change. For the benefit of science he wrote the important work Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637), commonly known as the Discourse on Method. Descartes created the famous Latin phrase cogito, ergo sum, which means I think, therefore I am. Now work out what the writers meant with Putting Descartes before des horse?

For more information:

Trevor J. Willis, Laboratori Scienze Ambientali, Universita di Bologna, Via Sant' Alberto 163, 48100 Ravenna, Italy. Tel: +39 0544 454 901; E-mail:

Russell B. Millar, Department of Statistics, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand. Tel: +64 9 373 7599; E-mail:

Russ C. Babcock, CSIRO Marine Research, Private Bag 5, Wembley, WA 6913, Australia. Tel: +61 8 93 336 535; E-mail:

Nick Tolimieri, 1015 NE 105th St, Seattle, WA 98125, USA

By Fiona Gell and Callum Roberts
[Emphasis on selected text is ours]

Some scientists point out, rightly, that most studies of marine reserves employ designs which cannot unequivocally deliver a verdict on whether they work.  Many studies compare a single reserve with one or more control sites.  Since in some cases (but certainly not all), reserves were chosen because they have good quality habitats, this leaves open the possibility that differences detected are habitat rather than protection effects. Similarly, changes over time in measures of reserve performance may be due to habitat or background environmental changes.

Is it a co-incidence that this introspective article arrived within one year of the Seafriends web site critically attacking marine reserves science, including the writings of these authors?
The strongest study design for reserves research is considered to be before-after-control-impact-pairs analysis (BACIP).  Here several reserves (three or more) are paired with several control locations, and data collected at intervals before (ideally three or more times) and after protection.  In this way, the effects of protection can be separated from those of habitat.  Sites adjacent to reserves may receive spillover and will not be adequate controls.  So to settle questions of spillover we need several sets of reserve-adjacent area-control site triplets.  Our difficulties do not end there.  Reserves can potentially export larvae tens of kilometers away, so sites within that supply envelope may also be affected by the reserve and will not represent true controls.  Conditions and habitats in control and reserve sites must be matched closely, but as distance between them increases, conditions may diverge.  Good controls are very difficult to find.

There are also human problems.  Few funding organizations will support collection of several years of pre-protection data.  Scientists also find it hard to maintain control over the design of reserve experiments. Management plans are often modified, reserve boundaries changed, and protection poorly implemented.  It is hardly surprising then that almost no studies have achieved this level of design sophistication. Furthermore, almost none collect data on fishing effort, which is essential to interpreting findingsWithout such data it is impossible to know whether absence of an effect is because reserves don't work or is just due to lack of protection.

Some people suggest that fishers' resistance to reserves will diminish or disappear when scientists produce better quality evidence, but we doubt this.  Fishers are most often convinced of the usefulness of reserves through the experience of other fishers.  This makes an all-round picture of how reserves have affected fishing, the wider community and the ecosystems, of more relevance than statistical tests.  However, skeptical fishery managers and decision makers may be won over by stronger science.

Fishermen weigh evidence against their own very extensive experience with the sea. Ask a marine scientist where the fish are and he won't know. Stronger science must make practical sense before it becomes accepted.
That said, we find it paradoxical that many managers place more faith in management tools whose performance has not been subject to the level of critical scrutiny they demand of reserves.  This is not to say that seeking such a high standard of proof is not necessary for reserves.  The next generation of studies must strive for it.  But we should also demand the same evidence of efficacy for other fishery management tools.  The poor state of the world's fisheries suggests these tools are not performing as intended.
A very weak statement, particularly because most fishing problems in managed fiseries have been caused by flawed computer models and fisheries scientists not sufficiently acquainted with the practices of fishing. As we are moving into a world of scarcity, all fisheries management tools will improve as much as fishermen are prepared to learn about marine conservation and to leave more fish in the sea. One of the problems with marine reserve scientists is that they are unwilling to learn more about fishing. This is particularly strange since the only thing a marine reserve does, is to stop fishing. How then can one understand reserves if one does not understand fishing?

The bottom line is that the efffects from marine reserves are too trivial to be measured easily. So why not stop trying? Focus on marine degradation instead. It is large and increases rapidly.

This article cannot readily be explained from previous writings of these authors. Only too willingly and too uncritically have they embraced the myths and fallacies in the marine reserves 'science' (see references below).
(1) The  fishery effects of marine reserves and fishery closures. Fiona R Gell & Callum M Roberts (2002).World Wildlife Fund-US. (available on Internet)
(2) Fully-protected marine reserves: a guide. Callum M Roberts & Julie P Hawkins (2000). WWF Endangered Seas campaign.

(This piece was excerpted, with permission from Elsevier, from: Gell F.R. and Roberts C.M. 2003. "Benefits beyond boundaries: the fishery effects of marine reserves." Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18:448-455. Copyright 2003 Elsevier)

For more information:

Fiona Gell, Port Erin Marine Lab, University of Liverpool, Port Erin, Isle of Man, UK. Email:

Callum Roberts, Environment Department, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, United Kingdom. Tel: +44 1904 434066; E-mail:

Flawed marine reserves science
By Dr J Floor Anthoni, director Seafriends Marine Conservation and Education Centre, 
Leigh, New Zealand.

A letter to: John B. Davis, Editor MPA News -- International News and Analysis on Marine Protected Areas
School of Marine Affairs; University of Washington; E-mail:

The appearance of two independent articles by marine reserve scientists (MPA News 48), questioning the validity of marine research done so far, attests to courage since it is not easy to say that the Emperor has no clothes. There is indeed much wrong with the unproven claims made for perceived benefits from marine reserves. Existing MPA scientific literature is dominated by opinion articles, reviews and flawed computer models while quoting research results out of their context - not a good start for our children.

When basic assumptions are insufficiently tested, science cannot survive. For instance, how could it be that so many economists, trained by scores of universities were wrong? The science of economics, for decades dominated by the tenets of 'Neo-classical economics' is now collapsing ( It went wrong because the basic assumptions were never tested and because of much dishonesty within the profession. Could something similar threaten marine science? After all, economy is about transactions between people and ecology about transactions between populations. Do we have enough honesty to question our basic assumptions? Do we understand the marine environment enough?

Due to a variety of reasons, marine science has succumbed to the 'snapshot' approach where inexperienced junior scientists make dives to collect data to prove a hypothesis. These scientists are not long-term observers (marine naturalists) to notice what is happening around them, events that could influence the outcome of their studies. The long-term detective-style research to discover Why Things Are and How Thing Work is now largely absent from marine studies. Not surprisingly, the snapshot approach invites for the wrong conclusions even where large data sets have been collected. The size of the experiment simply does not guarantee correctness of outcome.

Dishonesty has also been rife by the many travelling proponents of marine reserves, many of whom do not dive or don't qualify as marine naturalists. The Goat Island marine reserve near Leigh (my back yard), New Zealand, is a point in case, often mentioned in one breath with the Galapagos Islands for its proclaimed success. However, nothing is further from the truth. I invite MPA readers to make a virtual visit to this marine reserve via our web site and read what is really happening (  and Lessons from Leigh). Even here in New Zealand, with only 4 million inhabitants, coastal marine reserves are no longer working because they are degrading from landbased pollution, which brings me to another remiss in marine science.

The main threat to the world's coastal seas now comes from landbased pollution like farm runoff, mud, fertilisers and sewage. Yet no scientific studies have been done as to How Pollution Works and Why Pollution Is and How Pollution Kills, even after thirty years of problems. Scientists are still institutionally blind. Why? Can we rely on them at all if they are not even concerned about our largest problems?

Here in New Zealand we now know that coastal marine reserves don't work. They do not provide an insurance. They do not help fisheries. They do not save the sea. They do nothing for the real problems affecting our seas. Marine reserves are but a small tool in the toolbox of marine conservation and they should be used for what they do best, where they work best. To save the sea requires a fully integrated approach that looks at the very causes of all the threats to the sea, not just those from fishing. I invite MPA readers to read the very extensive Seafriends web site which is devoted to this philosophy. There is a better way than blindly locking up large areas of the sea.

Only by saving the land can we save the sea.
None are so blind as those who will not see.

The above letter was truncated and this was actually published in MPA News No 49 of Feb 2004:
By Floor Anthoni

The appearance in MPA News of two essays by marine scientists questioning the rigor of marine reserve research attests to courage since it is not easy to say that the Emperor has no clothes.  There is indeed much wrong with the claims made for perceived fisheries benefits from marine reserves.  Due to a variety of reasons, much of marine science has succumbed to the "snapshot" approach, where inexperienced junior scientists make dives for a year to collect data to prove a hypothesis. These scientists are not long-term observers, and so do not notice events happening around them that could influence the outcomes of their studies, such as climatic oscillations or habitat degradation.

Meanwhile, scientists have remained largely oblivious to the major damage caused to the world's coastal seas by land-based pollution, including mud, fertilizer runoff, and sewage.  (Mud, for example, has had a significant impact on the world-renowned Goat Island marine reserve here in New Zealand.)  Too few scientific studies have been done on how pollution can impact marine life.  Scientists must focus more of their research on this threat, and every marine protected area should have an action plan for rehabilitating the land in its catchment areas.

Marine reserves are but a small tool in the toolbox of marine conservation.  To save the sea will require a fully integrated approach that looks at the causes of all the threats to the sea, not just those from fishing.  I invite MPA News readers to visit the Seafriends website (, which is devoted to this philosophy.

For more information:
Floor Anthoni, Seafriends Marine Conservation and Education Centre, 7 Goat Island Rd, Leigh R.D.5, New Zealand. Tel: +64 9422 6212; E-mail:

[Editor's note: Anthoni is director of the Seafriends Marine Conservation and Education Centre, an NGO dedicated to the conservation of New Zealand seas.]