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Past Projects

California MLPA

Forecasting conservation and socioeconomic outcomes of MPA network proposals in California

Passed in 1999, the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) mandated the creation of a science-based network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in California state waters. The goals of the California network of MPAs under the MPLA are:


  1. To protect the natural diversity and function of marine ecosystems.
  2. To help sustain and restore marine life populations.
  3. To improve recreational, educational, and study opportunities in areas with minimal human disturbance.
  4. To protect representative and unique marine life habitats.


To help ensure that these goals are met, a Science Advisory Team, including SFG Principals Chris Costello and Steve Gaines, was established to develop guidelines for MPA design and to evaluate proposed networks of MPAs.

SFG Postdoctoral Researcher Andrew Rassweiler and Chris Costello developed a cutting-edge spatial bioeconomic model to evaluate alternative MPA networks proposed by stakeholder groups. The model coupled information about fish populations and fish habitat, larval dispersal based on complex ocean circulation patterns, and fishing fleet behavior in order to predict consequences of a given MPA network for conservation and fishery profits.  In an iterative process, stakeholders created network proposals and the Science Advisory Team recommended changes based on the modeling results and other scientific criteria.


As of 2010, 51 MPAs, including 26 no-take marine reserves, have been implemented along the central California coast (see subset of the MPA network at left). An additional 36 MPAs will go into effect on January 1, 2012 along the southern California coast, and the approval process is still underway along the northern coast. The MLPA process is unprecedented in terms of both scientific rigor and public participation. For more information, please visit California's Department of Fish and Game website.








Photo credit: Kelp: NOAA/NOS, MPA network: PISCO

Channel Islands Finfish

Collaborative research and co-management strategies for data-poor fisheries


SFG Postdoctoral Researcher Jono Wilson has been working with the near-shore finfish fishery in the Santa Barbara Channel to collect essential fishery information and evaluate different management strategies for data-poor fisheries.  Over a three year period, Jono and several commercial fishermen tagged and released over 5000 near-shore fish dominated by grass rockfish (Sebastes rastrelliger) and cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus).  Sampling sites were located inside and outside of a network of marine reserves at the Channel Islands (marine reserve network shown below in red).

jono_channelislands.pngData from this study indicated that grass rockfish populations exhibit variability in life history traits (e.g., growth rate) and demographic rates (e.g., mortality rate) across the network of reserves according to productivity of the region. Management actions that match the scale of population variability and incorporate information from within reserves can improve fisheries yields while meeting strict conservation requirements.  The simple models developed in this work use data that are easily collected by fishermen or local community members and have application to data-poor fisheries throughout the world.

Indonesia Sustainable Fisheries

Lesser Sunda Sustainable Fisheries Initiative


Indonesia is a developing world nation highly dependent on the sea for food and income. However, achieving economic and biologically sustainable fisheries in Indonesia is likely to be a formidable uphill battle. Productive fisheries are threatened by a weak and often corrupt regulatory structure, a fragmented and chaotic supply chain, and inefficiencies in processing and distribution. Overfishing is a major concern due to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and a lack of well enforced management regulations including no-take marine reserves. The Lesser Sunda Sustainable Fisheries Initiative is an example of a promising alternative; instead of relying on uncertain and unevenly enforced government policies, partners are working with key industry leaders to establish a new model for sustainability through private contract. If industry leaders have a sufficient share of the market (or form an alliance of seafood buyers that all agree to follow the same purchasing guidelines), they can use economic incentives to drive sustainable fishing behavior. This is essentially a new form of rights-based management, one in which the rights involved are ‘rights to sell fish.’ The strength of this approach is that its success does not depend on the quality of governance, and it can be honed to the ecology of the target species. There is no need to rely on government to adopt management regulations, establish individual catch quotas, or monitor and punish cheating. Coordinated groups of demand-side stakeholders can fulfill the function of creating and enforcing rights that align the incentives for ecological sustainability with economic performance.

Working closely with The Nature Conservancy and industry partners, the Sustainable Fisheries Group is currently modeling the feasibility of this strategy in the Lesser Sunda region. SFG team members have worked with partners on the ground to evaluate criteria for successful implementation. We are currently evaluating the conditions in which this approach can provide higher prices and greater certainty for local fishermen in order to incentivize the adoption of sustainable fishing practices. We will also assist with developing data collection protocols for fish processing plants and data assessment methods to assess stock sustainability in this data-poor context.

Achieving fishery sustainability in Indonesia will be difficult, but if a successful strategy can be devised the impact could be enormous as it could provide a template for other developing countries that suffer from the same institutional disadvantages that plague Indonesia.

Photo credit: Bob Deacon

Massachusetts Spatial Tradeoffs

Assessing tradeoffs between multiple ocean uses for optimal wind energy placement

Massachusetts_Maritime_Academy_wind_turbine_Dawn.jpgCoastal marine ecosystems are becoming increasingly crowded with multiple and often conflicting uses. Marine spatial planning (MSP) is an approach to allocate uses across the seascape in order to reduce conflicts and enhance benefits across multiple sectors. SFG Postdoctoral Researcher Crow White, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership, Boston University, University of Vermont, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, developed a bioeconomic model for guiding the optimal siting of offshore wind farms in Massachusetts Bay. The model assessed the tradeoffs between wave energy, fisheries and recreational activities for different wave energy siting options in order to minimize spatial conflicts and maximize the value of a range of uses.


This project first estimated the spatial distribution and value of commercial fishing and whale watching tourism in Massachusetts Bay in response to wind farm development. White and his collaborators then measured the gains in values achieved from coordinated planning compared to managing one sector at a time. Marine spatial planning increased the values of different ocean uses from a few percent to nearly 50%, with the greatest benefit for the energy sector.

This project is the first to demonstrate the real-world value of strategic Marine Spatial Planning for reducing sector conflicts and increasing ecosystem value in a region that is likely to host the first commercial scale offshore renewable energy facilities in the US.


Photo credit: MA wind turbine: Dawn Boileau; Flounder fishermen: Feeney

Bangladesh Inland Fisheries

Improving fisheries through community based-management

MohammadRakibulHasanMarinePhotobank.JPGThe inland fisheries of Bangladesh could provide an important protein source for local communities, but poor management has led to large declines in local fish populations. The prior management strategy of issuing short-term leases is blamed for impairing the sustainability of Bangladesh’s fisheries and for increasing their vulnerability to political influence. A growing body of scientific evidence finds that cooperative fishery management by user groups can be an effective alternative to management by government regulators, especially in developing countries. A Bangladesh government project, Management of Aquatic Ecosystems through Community Husbandry (MACH), has sought to establish community-based fishery management program with the goal of instilling incentives for local fishers to better steward the resource.

Our role in this project is to identify factors that determine the success and influence of community-based management regimes. The research will be conducted by adding a section of questions to a World Bank survey of Bangladesh fisheries. These survey questions will help determine the cooperative governance strategies in which these fisheries engage, how these choices are influenced by environmental and social settings, and what effect selected management practices have on fishery performance.  This effort will complement our ongoing research on fisheries cooperatives. We are currently compiling and analyzing a database of fisheries cooperatives around the world, documenting the underlying economic, ecological and institutional factors that influence the management choices made by cooperatively managed fisheries.  Through our efforts in Bangladesh, we will help guide specific management reforms within the country, and link our results to a broader understanding of the role of cooperatives in fisheries management worldwide.

Photo: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan/Marine Photobank

Bahamas MPA Valuation

As a regional leader in marine conservation, The Bahamas are a key participant in the Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI). CCI countries have made the commitment to conserve at least 20% of their nearshore marine environment in national marine protected area systems by 2020.

In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy’s Northern Caribbean Program, SFG interns Tyler Clavelle and Zach Jylkka performed an assessment of the economic value of the natural resources contained in two proposed national marine protected areas in Abaco, The Bahamas: East Abaco Creeks and Cross Harbour. If protected, East Abaco Creeks and Cross Harbour would increase the amount of protected area in Abaco by 47% and 48% respectively.

Through interviews with government officials, local non-profits, and community members, this study examined the contribution of the environmental goods and services generated by the proposed protected areas to the Bahamian people. The study employed benefit transfer in an ecosystem service-based approach focused mainly on the indirect values of key habitat functions. The results estimate the annual value of the ecosystem goods and services to range from $5.28 – 5.91 million for Cross Harbour and $6.27 – 6.60 million for East Abaco Creeks. With the threat of real estate development always a reality, the economic valuations included in this study provide policymakers with a more realistic appraisal of previously unvalued (or undervalued) habitat.

The findings of this project were detailed in a final report for The Nature Conservancy, with the aim of supporting and advancing existing national marine protected area proposals.

For more information, see the report and executive summary of the project

For more information on The Nature Conservancy's Program, see their Bahamas project site here


photo credit: Zach Jylkka

Financing Fisheries Reform


Why do so many overexploited fisheries fail to tap into proven fishery management reforms that can benefit both fish and fishermen? We believe that one of the main reasons for this lack of action is the perceived financial risk of making a management change. However, such risk aversion can be overcome with innovative financing mechanisms, such as insurance and loans, which can motivate fisheries reform.

To demonstrate how these innovative financing mechanisms could work, SFG has developed mathematical models that simulate their effects in four fisheries that exemplify problems common to many parts of the world.

Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery: Although recent catch levels of shrimp have been sustainable, a primary concern in this fishery is the prevalence of by-catch, or species that are incidentally caught and killed by the shrimp trawling gear. The fishery has the potential attain a sustainability certification (such as the Marine Stewardship Council label) if it reduces by-catch and increases fuel efficiency – changes that would lead to both economic and environmental benefits. However, these modifications can be very costly. Loans to support the transition could provide enough incentive for fishers to switch to new equipment, leading to higher profits and reduced ecological impacts.

Galapagos Islands lobster fishery: As with many fisheries, the primary gear used to capture lobster in the Galapagos is harmful to the long-term sustainability of the fishery: spear fishing leads to high mortality of juveniles and reproductive females, and doesn’t allow for fishers to sell the product live for higher prices. Alternative gears (including harvesting by hand) exist that could mitigate these problems, but have not been widely adopted due to the financial risk of gear transition. An investment by a business or NGO may be able to alleviate this financial hurdle, for example by providing tanks where live lobster can be held and subsequently sold for a greater profit. This new infrastructure can provide three-way benefits: fishers gain from higher prices, the lobster population is relieved of destructive spear fishing practices, and the investor reaps a profit.

Peru-Chile anchoveta fishery: Transboundary fisheries, like the anchoveta that travel between the territorial waters of Peru and Chile, are often overharvested due to the tendency of both countries to catch as much as they can while the fish are in their territory. In cases where fishing nations have difficulty cooperating over shared stocks, an alternative method for reducing fishing pressure is to establish a no-take marine protected area (MPA) along the border of their territorial seas. To overcome possible short-tem losses due to decreased fishing, a third-party investor could compensate fishers for losses and levy taxes on any gains.

Indonesia blue swimming crab fishery: The Indonesia blue swimming crab fishery suffers from overexploitation, a common symptom of open access management. In the absence of effective management mechanisms, industry-led reform provides an alternative approach to achieve economic and ecological sustainability. Under this approach, fishery stakeholders (like retailers, wholesalers, processors, and fishers) come together to exercise market power, such as a processor-mandated minimum size limit. Fishermen receive higher prices for adhering to these standards, and processors are paid back in the future via higher yields due to rebuilding. An association of processors and exporters has already begun to implement this approach by setting a minimum size limit and a ban on egg-bearing females for the blue swimming crab that they handle.

This work was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Waitt Foundation.