Papua New Guinea Shows Us Why Small Can Be Beautiful

By | December 9, 2011 at 6:21 pm | No comments

Photo by Heal the Bay via flickr

Balancing the employment needs of fishing communities with conservation concerns is a tricky task for many reasons—but the experience of a provincial initiative in Papua New Guinea offers valuable clues for success.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a commonly used strategy to achieve this balance. However, their effectiveness is often debated: Are they appropriately sited and sized? Will they be adequately enforced?

In the Papua New Guinea province of New Ireland, the fishing community established three marine protected areas with the goal of preserving a group of fish (called ‘groupers’). Defying conventional wisdom that to be effective MPAs must be large, these ones were a fraction of the size of many of their international counterparts – but far more effective. According to recently published research by RJ Hamilton and colleagues, the implementation and enforcement of smaller MPAs increased fish density more than larger-sized ones. So what was their secret?

Hamilton and colleagues offer possible answers. The MPAs were designed through local community surveys with the their size and resources in mind. Since this coral triangle community was limited in resources (both economically and socially), reserve designers knew that a larger reserve would require lots more people, more funds, and more enforcement… none of which these small communities have. Instead, the community was able to enforce a smaller scale, but effective, protected area that has already shown positive effects.

Equally important to the project’s success were characteristics of the type of fish – an essential part to marine conservation. Groupers don’t require a lot of area for spawning and reproduction; nor do they migrate very far.

The lessons from Papua New Guinea for MPA design are clear: When it comes to MPAs, small really can be beautiful. It all depends on contextual factors – economics, enforcement, and ecology – that can make way for a brighter, more stable future.

Kyle Empringham is Co-Founder and Editor of a new environmental news site, The Starfish ( He is also currently enrolled in graduate studies at Simon Fraser University, studying Resource and Environmental Management.


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