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New science: detrimental dams, fishery fears, protection rollbacks

© Sebastian Pena Lambarri/Unsplash

Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent scientific research published by Conservation International experts. 

1. Dam development in protected areas could threaten freshwater ecosystems 

A recent study found that more than 500 dams are planned or currently under construction in the world’s protected areas, which could negatively impact the freshwater ecosystems within them.

“Dams can have devastating social and ecological consequences — displacing communities and disrupting livelihoods, altering the flow of rivers, impacting species migrations and threatening the overall health of entire rivers or lakes,” said Conservation International’s Rachel Golden Kroner, a co-author of the study. 

Analyzing a global database of protected areas, researchers found that more than 1,200 large dams already exist in these areas, and identified multiple instances of governments downsizing the boundaries or easing restrictions of protected areas to allow for further dam development. Since the pandemic began in March, legal rollbacks of protected areas have become more frequent in several countries, putting at risk the health of freshwater ecosystems and human well-being, Golden Kroner explained.

“By opening up protected areas for development of dams and other infrastructure, humanity is shrinking natural ecosystems and increasing contact between wildlife and people — which could create the conditions for another pandemic.

“To ensure that protected areas stay protected, governments must invest more in their enforcement and promote conservation decision-making processes that are transparent and participatory, while avoiding legal rollbacks that would undermine protections.”

2. Tropical fisheries could flounder in the face of climate breakdown 

The maximum catch from tropical fisheries is projected to decline by up to 40 percent by 2050, a recent study reveals.

Rapidly rising ocean temperatures are altering the habitats and distributions of many migratory fish, including several species of tuna. For the 1.3 billion people who rely on wild-caught fish for food and jobs, this could be catastrophic.

“Tropical marine fisheries contribute around half of the annual global fish catch — which is worth about US$ 96 billion,” said Johann Bell, an expert in Pacific tuna fisheries at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans and a co-author of the study. “Many island nations in the Pacific and developing countries in other tropical areas rely heavily on fisheries for economic development and food security. If climate change continues at its current rate, the tuna-dependent Pacific Island economies and communities could take a hard hit.”

The authors of the study compiled and analyzed data from a range of environmental, economic and social studies to determine the extent of losses in tropical fisheries in the face of climate change. 

The loss of access to fish for developing countries, particularly in the Pacific, is not just a climate issue — it’s a justice issue, as well, Bell says. 

“Despite their minimal contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, Pacific Island countries are being disproportionately affected by the climate crisis.” 

This study was supported by the Moccasin Lake Foundation.

3. Development interests are threatening protected areas in Brazilian Amazon

According to new research, larger protected areas across the Brazilian Amazon that are close to roads and cities and have been significantly deforested are more likely to be downsized or eliminated than other protected lands in this region.

More than 23 percent of land in Latin America is protected, and most of these lands are concentrated in the Brazilian Amazon. However, evidence shows that development interests in hydropower, commercial agriculture and other industrial-scale projects often compete with conservation, resulting in the reduction or elimination of a protected area.

“Protected areas conserve forests and other ecosystems by restricting the establishment of big dams, mines, industrial agriculture and other large-scale commercial activities,” explained Mike Mascia, senior vice president of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science and a co-author on the study. “Bargaining over the fate of these protected lands can lead to conflicts between conservationists advocating for continued protection and business interests advocating for more rapid economic gains.” 

Using data from PADDDtracker, a database of efforts to scale back national parks and other protected areas globally, the researchers found that from 2006 to 2015, reductions in protected areas were largely due to their size, which raises the costs to enforce them; their proximity to roads and cities, which impacts enforcement costs and potential economic profitability; and the amount of deforestation in the area’s boundaries, which indicates a lack of effectiveness. 

“When debating the future of protected lands and waters, we must remember that it is not about environment versus economy — it is about supporting both,” Mascia said. 


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Tuna in the Maldives (© Sebastian Pena Lambarri/Unsplash)

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