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Environmental market design for large-scale marine conservation


It is commonly agreed that marine conservation should expand considerably around the world. However, most countries have not yet implemented large-scale no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). When a country closes a large fraction of its waters to fishing, it stands to lose a considerable level of fishery revenue. Although biodiversity and spillover fishing benefits may far exceed these losses, benefits from large-scale MPAs typically accrue to other countries or to the high seas. Here, to overcome this dilemma, we simulate and test an international fisheries management scheme with transferable fishing rights that incentivizes, rather than hinders, large-scale marine conservation. By combining a bioeconomic model of cross-country trading of fishing rights with vessel-level tracking data before and after a large-scale conservation action is implemented, we show that transferable fishing rights and a biomass-based allocation rule are pivotal to incentivize conservation under this market-based setting. Our work focuses on the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS)—an environmental market that is employed by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (a group of nine Pacific Island nations) to manage their tuna fisheries—and areas in which large-scale conservation interventions have taken place. Overall, these results provide a template for how to incentivize countries to engage in large-scale marine conservation within a market-based setting.

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Fig. 1: Exclusive Economic Zones and Marine Protected Areas in the PNA.
Fig. 2: Cost of spatial closures in a vessel-day fishery.
Fig. 3: Costs of a spatial closure for country 1 under different allocation rules.
Fig. 4: Change in spatial footprint of fishing activity by 318 tuna purse seiners.
Fig. 5: Effort displacement and licence revenues.

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The code that support the findings of this study are available on GitHub at


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We thank R. Dacks for research assistance. J.C.V.-D. was supported by UCMexus-CONACyT (CVU, grant no. 669403) and the Latin American Fisheries Fellowship Program. J.L. was supported by the Conservation Strategy Fund, with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy. J.L. and C.C. acknowledge The Nature Conservancy.

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All of the authors contributed equally.

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Correspondence to Juan Carlos Villaseñor-Derbez.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Annual country-level vessel-days for all PNA countries by 318 tuna purse seiners.

Colors indicate ISO3 codes for each country (PLW: Palau, PNG: Papua New Guinea, FSM: Federal States of Micronesia, SLB: Solomon Islands, NRU: Nauru, MHL: Marshal Islands, KIR: Kiribati, TUV: Tuvalu, TKL: Tokelau). After 2015, vessel-days decrease for Kiribati and Increase for Papua New Guinea. Note that total vessel-days do not decrease at the PNA-level.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Annual fishing effort (hours) on a 1-degree grid around PIPA (red polygon) and Kiribati (black polygons).

There is no clear evidence of a “fishing the line” effect, with the greatest effort applied on the Gilbert islands (Kiribati) after 2015.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Longline and purse seine vessel-days in Palau during 2018 at a 0.5 degree resolution.

The red polygon shows the proposed Palau National Marine Sanctuary, containing 85.7% and 95.3% of longline and purse seine vessel-days, respectively. Note that the colorbars are presented in log10-transformed scale for better visualization.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Time series of the annual proportion of longline and purse seine vessel-days within the proposed PNMS boundaries.

The proposed PNMS boundaries have historically contained 86 ± 5.30% (±1SD) of longline vessel-days and 91.3 ± 5.03% (±1SD) of purse seine vessel-days.

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Supplementary Tables 1–3 and Figs. 1–7.

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Villaseñor-Derbez, J.C., Lynham, J. & Costello, C. Environmental market design for large-scale marine conservation. Nat Sustain 3, 234–240 (2020).

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