Most large-scale conservation policies are anticipated or announced in advance. This risks the possibility of preemptive resource extraction before the conservation intervention goes into force.

This study used a high-resolution dataset of satellite-based fishing activity to show that anticipation of an impending no-take marine reserve undermines the policy by triggering an unintended race-to-fish.

By studying one of the world’s largest marine reserves, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (Pacific Ocean), the authors found that fishers more than doubled their fishing effort once this area was earmarked for eventual protected status. This additional fishing effort (130% increase) resulted in an impoverishment starting point for the protected area equivalent to 1.5 years of banned fishing.

The authors extrapolated this behavior globally and estimated that if other marine reserve announcements were to trigger similar preemptive fishing, this could temporality increase the share of overextracted fisheries from 65% to 72%.

It is stated that the obtained results contribute to the growing appreciation by policy makers and scientists to proceed cautiously when environmental policies and economic incentives are misaligned. In the specific case of marine reserves, the authors suggest a need to reduce the duration of policy design methods.

McDermott GR, Meng KC, McDonald GG, Costello CJ (2018) The blue paradox: preemptive overfishing in marine reserves. PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1802862115.