Does the pope wear a funny hat?

5 04 2011

Does a one-legged duck swim in circles? Does an ursid defecate in a collection of rather tall vascular plants? Does fishing kill fish?

Silly questions, I know, but it’s the kind of question posed every time someone doubts the benefits (i.e., for biodiversity, fishing, local economies, etc.) of marine reserves.

I’ve blogged several times on the subject (see Marine protected areas: do they work?The spillover effectInterview with a social (conservation) scientist, and Failing on ocean protection), but considering Hugh Possingham is town today and presenting the case to the South Australian Parliament on why this state NEEDS marine parks, I thought I’d rehash an old post of his published earlier this year in Australasian Science:

Science has long demonstrated that marine reserves protect marine biodiversity. Rather than answer the same question again, isn’t it about time we started funding research that answers some useful scientific questions?

As marine reserves spread inexorably across the planet, the cry from skeptics and some fishermen is: “Do marine reserves work?” The science is pretty clear but acknowledgement of this by the public is another story. Let me begin with a story of my experience answering this question while communicating to stakeholders the subtleties of marine conservation planning during the rezoning of Moreton Bay.

I was asked by the then-Queensland Environmental Protection Agency to explain to stakeholders the process of marine reserve system design as it applied to the Moreton Bay rezoning. I told the gathering that the rezoning was about conserving a fraction of each mappable biodiversity attribute (species and habitats) for the minimum impact on the livelihood of others.

Things were going well (I thought), but then came the first question: “Prove to us marine reserves work! I don’t think they do.”

When I asked why he felt this way he responded: “Because most of the fish we catch move so much we will catch them when they come out of the reserve”.

I responded (though not quite this eloquently): “Your argument leads to two logical responses – there is no case for compensating fishermen for the new marine reserves in Moreton Bay because you catch the fish when they come out, or the reserves need to be a lot bigger”.

I went on to say: “Furthermore we have proved that marine reserves work in at least 100 studies worldwide. Why wouldn’t they work in Moreton Bay?” But the response from the fishing stakeholders was: “We need it proved that they work in Moreton Bay. Moreton Bay is different.”

Around Australia, as our governments boldly forge ahead rezoning Australia’s waters, the question of whether marine reserves work is asked by many people who do not know the marine literature. As a result a great deal of monitoring and evaluation effort is being spent on testing the null hypothesis: “Fishing does not kill fish”.

The classic Honours student Before-After-Control-Impact (BACI) design is being rolled out across Australia, and it looks a bit like this: we count and measure fish in several places, stop fishing in some of those places, continue to count and measure so we can try to reject the null hypothesis that fishing has no impact.

Sometimes we can’t prove it, because we don’t have enough data. However, an alternative approach is to go to the local primary school and ask a small child: “If we stop killing all the fish in a place do you think there may be more of them and the ones left may be bigger?”

Of course there are many subtleties to the removal of fishing pressure – in more sedentary species territorial adults may exclude juveniles and numbers may drop. For some species reserves will be too small, and if we have reserve size as a covariate then we might get useful information about minimum reserve size.

However, when you establish a protected area, invariably biomass (the combination of numbers and size) will go up, especially in the higher trophic levels. You can’t remove lots of fish without having an impact – to ask this question again and again is like questioning the powers of gravity every day in every place. Next time you fly to New Zealand be careful when you step out of the plane in case gravity failed while you were crossing the Tasman.

Just because policy-makers, stakeholders, managers or politicians ask a question it doesn’t mean that scientists should take funding to answer it. Ecology may be a difficult science with few fundamental laws, but many of its laws and principles are global – like killing animals reduces population size.

There are useful scientific questions we can answer while monitoring marine reserves that will help with future rezoning and policy. The key is that applied monitoring has to pass some tests.

Do we know enough already from other studies? Is the answer already obvious? If we get an answer do we have a management response?

This sort of thinking will be the subject of some of the research of the new ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, which gets underway this year. Watch this space!

Professor Hugh Possingham is Director of the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis centre at the University of Queensland.



20 responses

26 08 2014
Hugh Possingham on Marine Parks - Environment Institute

[…] more about the science and benefits Marine Parks provide for the environment and society, head to where Corey Bradshaw and Hugh discuss this issue in more […]


30 07 2012
Does the Pope wear a funny hat? | Marine Reserves Coalition

[…] published on on 5 April […]


18 06 2011
The few, the loud and the factually challenged «

[…] to the fishers who benefit from the free, public-good resource that they assist in maintaining (see here, here and here). The evidence is clear world-wide: marine parks benefit pretty much everything and […]


8 06 2011
Wade M

I do not think I have read a report that puts the scientific side of the marine parks debate in a better unbiased perspective than this one.

Enjoy the read……

Click to access 11103.pdf


8 06 2011
Wade M

Dr Hugh Possingham has a lot to answer for. In his address to parliment in SA he stated how he likes to think of himself as an economist.

This is because he factors in economics into his marxan modelling tool.

If this was the case then why did his tool fail to realise that towns such as Port Moorowie on Yorke Penesula even existed?

No economics involved when a town is encapsulated by 70 Sq kilometers of no take
zone is there?

Plus, did Hugh’s marxan tool include density dependent body growth factors?

If his tool led the DENR CEO Allan Holmes to advocate larger fish then I would suggest not?

Clearly the report from the British Ecology Society proves that increased competition for food actually creates smaller fish not larger fish.

I believe his modelling was fundamentally flawed…….not just economically but environmentally as well.


8 06 2011
Wade M

Finally a scientist who tells the truth……well done Dr Phillip Creagh. If only the integrity shown by yourself was reverberated accross all of the fishing haters out there. Then recreational fisherman (many who are conservationists too) may get a balanced result from this extremist interpretation of MPA implementation. The bias sentiment shown by too many self interested scientists has sent the integrity of marine science back to the dark ages. My inclusion with the marine environment is why I love it so much. Exclusion as a first resort is not the answer especially when it appears to be for entry fee and fine revenue. Education and association is the key to respecting our wonders under the water. We humans are not alien to this planet!


7 06 2011
Dr. Philip Creagh

Thank you Tom for your response. Unfortunately on the interweb I don’t know you, so I am unsure if you are a science student, wet behind the ears or a grizzled 60+ Veterinary Scientist such as me … I suspect you are not the latter.

Could I make a few general comments to try and give you some background?

I graduated in 1971. In those days Veterinarians either went into Government/Private practice doing Large animal work or into small animal practice.

Veterinarians who did small animals were regarded as somewhat ‘inferior’ .. rather than those Vets who did large animal work and all its connotations of ‘working for the food security of Australia and the World.” Within the Veterinary profession that perception is MUCH smaller, but still present.

I put it to you that there is a similar discrepancy between fishery scientists .. working to provide ‘food security’ and marine scientists with a fundamental ‘no fish’ conservation view of the world’s oceans.

In 2011 ‘protecting’, ‘nurturing’ and ‘conservation’ are far more sexy than ‘sustainable yield’, ‘stocking rate’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘food security’ … but for how much longer??.

Now to the point you don’t comprehend .. In the NSW Marine Park system the NSW branch of AMSA authored a paper “A review of benefits of MPAs ….”. This was used by the NSW Minister for Environment, who had oversight of the NSW Marine Parks Authority, to set the direction of NSW Marine Parks, rather like the situation in SA at the moment.

It had been quite clearly demonstrated, by Prof. Robert Kearney, to be merely an advocacy piece for ‘no take’ fishing zones. It even has several errors of fact, some so gross it could be claimed that they were fraudulently done to deceive. Read the ‘Benefits …’ in conjunction with Kearney’s paper.

Thus NSW AMSA ‘conned’ the NSW Minister in the ‘design’ of NSW Marine Parks. This was done without the overarching legislation being followed. Mainly in selecting 20% “No fish zones”, within MPs, as the sole ‘conservation’ initiative in the NSW Marine Park system.

I suspect this is happening in South Australia as well. NSW has just ‘seen the light’ and transferred Marine Parks from Department of Environment into the Department of fisheries.

NSW Marine Parks are solely concerned with fishing exclusion (removing commercial and recreational fishing) or modification (removing commercial effort) zones in the three step zoning level. Nowhere is zoning, within a NSW Marine Park, concerned with protecting against other threats to the marine environment. Fishing exclusion zones appear to be the sole goal for conservation, within Australian Marine Parks, of the marine scientist members of AMSA. The silence is deafening, in relation to the benefits of ‘No take’ zones within Marine Parks from Fishery scientists within the Australian Society of Fish Biologists (ASFB)s and those within NSW DPI and DAFF.

I have read ALL of the work in the Australian situation, and a fair slab of the cited work in the International sphere, including Possingham, who is after all a theoretical mathematician, and others within NSW AMSA. These merely postulate the benefits of ‘no take zones’ and find no consideration is given to endocrine disruptor effects, heavy metal pollution, stormwater and agricultural run-off into our estuarine environment. That is left to ‘other departments’ to control.

I maintain that pollution is the most understudied and neglected of all threats to the Australian marine environment, only recently starting to receive the attention it deserves. This is exacerbated by the topography of virtually all the Australian coastline.

These problems have become more acute as synthetic chemicals, with increasing longevity in the natural world, are replacing ‘natural’ compounds that have a very low duration of action. This has emerged since the mid ‘50s with the advent of the first synthetic hormone, the female contraceptive pill.

You may well be right when you say “Rather, it’s being pushed primarily by some of the most respected ecologists in Australia and the world”.

Have you ever wondered whether the claims made to exclude recreational and commercial line fishermen in Australia, from areas with outstanding fishery management, are met with thinly veiled contempt by the vast majority of stakeholders who USE that environment on a daily basis?

Have you ever wondered whether the claims made by the Green groups of an economic ‘windfall for all’ are met with such contempt by those who ACTUALLY live in the area effected by ‘no take’ zones??

Without doubt there are negative effects on the socio-economic environment within a Marine Park. The analogy that Possingham used … “fishing DOES kill fish” .. is, of course, correct. However the phrase ‘one less fishing business reduces the economy of a town’ is just as relevant.

The claims of economic benefits from Australian ‘Marine Parks’ have NEVER been tested despite the protestations of the various extreme green conservation groups. I could give several examples of a negative effect within Narooma, NSW

Could it possibly be that respect for the science amongst the ‘unwashed’ has slumped as the academic theoreticians have a real problem in presenting a case that involves balance .. a balance between the environment and the people affected by their decisions?

As an example another blog on this site ‘Getting conservation stakeholders involved’ has merit.


8 06 2011

Hmmm – I wondered about the credentials here ‘Dr.’ – is this you? In what are you trained other than promoting big business?


8 06 2011
Dr. Philip Creagh

Greetings Corey .. No not me .. amazing as Creagh is an unusual name, and to have a clone elsewhere in Australia is unusual. You would have noticed in my post exactly what I am, “ a grizzled 60+ Veterinary Scientist such as me “, and that I live in NSW.

As you would (should) be aware Medicos, Dentists and Veterinary Scientists are given the courtesy title of ‘Doctor’. They have been since I graduated from Sydney University in ’71. I have other post nominals that are irrelevant in this discussion.

In case you were thinking of it? ….I’m not interested in joining your ‘Conservation scholars’ … thank you :):)


30 05 2011
Dr. Philip Creagh

Unfortunately Prof. Possingham’s post demonstrates the hubris and hyperbole of much of the science being used by marine scientists to justify excluding fishing as the sole response by Federal and State Governments to the declaration of “Marine Protected Areas’.

Possibly only exceeded by his declaration in the Byron Echo that proving that the MP model should be justified in the overwhelmingly well managed Australian and State fisheries was rather like “demanding proof that gravity existed in each different place on the planet”.

Australia’s response to its international obligations to select, and manage, Marine Protected areas have been laid down in legislation. Australia is a democracy, we are bound to work within the parameters of the legislation and as such the Marine Park system is not the play-thing of academic marine scientists such as Possingham, Booth, Gladstone and Fairweather to postulate over. Nor, of course, Commercial or Recreational fishing groups. Although the Commercial fishery groups certainly have their backs against the wall.

For Possingham to simply state, “as a result a great deal of monitoring and evaluation effort is being spent on testing the null hypothesis: “Fishing does not kill fish”, is pure hubris. He either doen’t get the point or he refuses to acknowledge it.

Quite clearly the following principles have been enunciated and even the hoi-polloi recreational fishing groups understand them, unfortunately it appears marine scientist, particularly those who are members of the Australian Marine Sciences Association don’t.
* Article 7 of the Convention on Biological Diversity states quite clearly that the significant threats to the environment MUST be identified.
* The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999 then goes on to state that the processes that cause these threats must then be addressed and finally
* the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, 1992 states quite clearly that the actions taken must NOT be disproportionate to the significance of the environmental problems.

Recreational fishers then ask the question ‘Why do marine scientists appear to be the main pushers for large ‘no take’ areas?? Fisheries scientists have been deafening in their silence in comparison.
The inevitable conclusion is the degree of self-interest from Marine science, as opposed to fishery science, to prove their relevance in a grant driven environment.

Trust of the ‘science’ being produced by marine scientists received a severe setback with the 2007 Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing in relation to the Grey Nurse Shark. It doesn’t matter which way Dr. Otway tried to demonstrate that in his paper, “Mark recapture ….”, leaving out a significant data set and the consequent (to the hearing) refutation of the population, so long trumpeted to the public by extreme green conservation groups as “below 450”, in fact has been shown to be more than 1300 and still counting.

Personally I blame the lack of scientific rigour within the University environment, the drive to earn overseas dollar income and the acceptance of undergraduates with quite low scores at leaving school. Unlike the ‘professions’ there is no mechanism that can be used against marine scientists who are ‘less than truthful’. Something that will have to be addressed


2 06 2011
Tom Keen

This comment is so incoherent, it’s difficult to respond.

“Australia is a democracy, we are bound to work within the parameters of the legislation and as such the Marine Park system is not the play-thing of academic marine scientists such as Possingham, Booth, Gladstone and Fairweather to postulate over”

What does democracy and the “parameters of the legislation” have to do with anything? They’re not violating any laws, and are perfectly entitled in a democracy to voice their concerns about what their studies are showing.

“He either doen’t get the point or he refuses to acknowledge it.”

Simply labelling it “hubris” is in no way a refutation of anything in this article, and you make no mention at all about “the point” he is supposedly missing.

And what doesn’t the Australian Marine Sciences Association get? You are simply asserting that they “don’t get it”, and then shooting off some lines of legislation without attempting to show what they are missing or how these snippets are even relevant.

“The inevitable conclusion is the degree of self-interest from Marine science, as opposed to fishery science, to prove their relevance in a grant driven environment.”

Are you really arguing, evidence free, that the Marine Sciences Association is the party driven by self-interest here, and that industry sponsored scientists are not?

Your comment about Grey Nurse Sharks is utterly irrelevant to the issue at hand. Even then, you’re splitting hairs. The paper “Mark-recapture population estimate and movements of Grey Nurse Sharks” sets an upper 95% confidence value of about 750 individuals – you state a population of 1300, unreferenced, and by any account is still a small and highly vulnerable abundance.

As for your last patronising comment, “undergraduates with quite low scores at leaving school” are not the ones presenting the argument for marine protected areas here. Rather, it’s being pushed primarily by some of the most respected ecologists in Australia and the world.

You can level allegations of untruthfulness at these scientists all you like. Unsubstantiated, they shall be read as nothing more than fabrications.


5 05 2011
the truth is out there

This explains what is really happening with green zones in Moreton bay Marine park

Didn’t the ecology centre do “research” that said these zones just needed to be bigger ? The real world marine processes prove Possingham wrong. Again.


13 05 2011

This is perhaps one of the least informative posts we’ve received. Do your research instead of bagging out one of the world’s most respected conservation ecologists in the world. Substantiate your bias or stay silent.


26 04 2011
Wade M

New Zealand have had these MPA’s for years and years and over 2/3rds of them have failed to achieve any increase in marine biodiversity due to degradation from various forms of pollution. When are the scientists who advocate for these no take zones going to stop feathering their own nests and start attacking the real threats to our marine environment instead of the threat of fishing which is very well managed in Australia already. Dr Hugh Possingham is sending science back into the dark ages with his flawed computer modelling technique to marine biology. Anyone with half a brain doesn’t believe you Dr Possingham and never will…..your time would be better spent on something else that aids our marine system without huge social and economical ramifications placed on Australian citizens. Leave fisheries management to the fisheries departments because environmental departments do not have any historical credibility regarding fish management. After all it is a fish management tool being used in disguise as that is all it prevents!


9 06 2011
Hugh Possingham

Dear Wade,

Just some points of clarification:
1 Our software, Marxan, is freely available on the web (no cost to anyone) and it is used by most countries in the world to develop their marine zoning plans. If you google Marxan you can get a great deal of free information about what it does. Furthermore about 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers about Marxan are also readily available through Google Scholar. Finally, the principles it embodies are standard conservation planning principles and supported by hundreds of scientific papers from all over the world. These principles date to the 1980s.
2 As for feathering my nest – I don’t want to appear to be defensive – however as an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow my salary is fixed. ARC Federation Fellows (again see the web) are attained through a competitive process and are open to all Australian researchers from all disciplines. What consulting work I do goes to support my research group – that is it goes to training and supporting PhD students and it goes back into the University of Queensland.
3 I am not in an environment department. I am 50% a Professor in the School of Mathematics and Physics and 50% a Professor in the School of Biology at The University of Queensland. I am also an Emeritus Professor at The University of Adelaide where I was (11 years ago) a Chair of Environmental Science and Management.
4 Stock assessment is a mix of ecology, maths and economics. My group works with, and indeed, trains, the fisheries scientists of whom you speak.

Don’t be frightened to call me if you want to chat through any of this stuff. I am on holiday and free to chat from Friday June 10 to Monday June 13 – 0434 079 061. The marine reserves literature is fairly large and time consuming to read through. There will always be occasional studies that yield unexpected results, so we have much to learn. But like medical advice, which we all seem to take, we don’t need to know exactly how the human body works to provide pretty good advice. If we did wait for complete knowledge, then there would be no advice.

cheers Hugh


22 04 2011
Christopher Love

I believe that Phill is bang on the money, prior to this zoning process QLF Fisheries reports showed that all most all of fishing in the MBMP Zones were sustainable with other methods (ie Size and Bag limits, strictly controlled Commercial Industry). So now that it was established BEFORE the fact, that the zoning process was NOT about protecting fish stocks (because they didn’t need more protecting than they already got) the campaign led by the extreme greens such as the AMCS and the Bligh Government was purely about protecting habitat. Please explain how a fisherman trolling a lure through an area that is 30m deep hoping to catch a pelagic fish that enters that area chasing bait schools it has pushed there is going to damage HABITAT? I bet you can’t! That is why you will never ever prove that the GreenZones are doing any benefit because the large majority of species in MBMP are not territorial like in tropical NQ coral reefs. The whole MBMP Zoning process was a political one to appease green preferences at election time-FACT!


21 04 2011
Phill Kliese

My question on Marine Park zonings is, What does the zone protect ? This question directly relates to the Queensland Governments statements during the zoning process, that it was not about fishing, it was about protecting the environment. Well that protection worked well when that cargo ship spewed tons of oil into the GREEN ZONE off Moreton and onto the beaches.

If the zoning was about fishing, we would not need zones. With well managed bag limits, size regulations, closed seasons and more, our ( Qld’s ) fishery would be and in fact IS, healthy and sustainable.

Plonking a green zone in an area that gets hammered by land borne pollutants achieves nothing other than appeasing extreme green groups and gives the folks that implemented the zones, that warm and fuzzy feeling of ” Saving The Planet “.

When will the real science be made available to the public as the to status of what a green zone achieves…. for the habitat / environment ?


Phill Kliese
ECOfishers Qld.


9 06 2011
Hugh Possingham

Dear Phil,

I think your answer is in the material above. Over 100 peer reviewed papers is a powerful body of evidence. The real science is in and it is quite accessible (Google “The science of marine reserves” or phone me for a chat).

I agree marine pollution is an issue, and there is growing evidence that no-take areas mitigate the effects of marine pollution. More importantly though, to say we shouldn’t stop fishing because marine pollution is also a negative effect on ecosystem health is like telling a heavy drinker that there is no point stopping smoking! Both would be good, one is a step forward.

cheers Hugh Possingham


5 04 2011
Hugh Possingham on Marine Parks « The Environment Institute

[…] more about the science and benefits Marine Parks provide for the environment and society, head to where Corey Bradshaw and Hugh discuss this issue in more […]


5 04 2011

I made a fairly silly spelling mistake in the original post – updated now. Sorry for that (guilty of my own pet peeve).


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