Part of my academic responsibilities include spending some time abroad to go “conferencing” with my peers to share ideas and research findings. For this year I decided to split my travel budget between a standard environmental economics conference (EAERE) and a more interdisciplinary one (MARE). I was positively surprised by both.

As many scientists I am a bit introverted and dislike large crowds of mostly unknown people. This is a large disadvantage at conferences like EAERE where several hundred environmental economists gather from all over Europe and beyond. This year, however, has been “like getting into a warm bath” as they say in Dutch — and not just because it was 42 °C outside in Athens where the conference took place.

This is due in part to the fact that after several years at this conference, I know enough people to spend the coffee and lunch breaks with.  The other part, and this is good news for other introverts like me, is that networking and making conversation can in part be learned, and after several years I now have the basic skills. I will probably never be a smooth talker to strangers, excuse me, future friends, but at least I won’t walk around completely lost in the crowd anymore. A final thing that helps is that environmental economists are generally an easy-going, good-natured bunch.

The MARE conference is an interdisciplinary conference for social scientists that work on issues in the marine environment and marine governance. That means that the main crowd consists of sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers. Economists in such a setting are sometimes (often?) considered “practioners of the dark art” as a fellow economist remarked in one of the sessions. That is a pity because I think we can learn quite a bit from each other, which was one of the reasons why I attended the conference. In that respect I’m happy to report that at least one sociologist told me after a discussion about the crowd that attended EAERE: “Oh… hum, you just forced me to revise my stereotypes.” For completeness let me remark here that I told her that the adjustment was only necessary for environmental and agricultural economists and that I couldn’t vouch for economists in general, or general economists.

So what did I learn at MARE? For one thing that economics is associated with neoliberalism and commodification of nature.  I happen to disagree although it is true that economics has difficulties dealing with things like intrinsic values or protection of nature on moral grounds. Not to put too fine a point to it: the ultimate commodification exercise, the estimate that the world’s ecosystem services are worth on average US$33 trillion per year, was mainly done by  “ecologists turned economists.” As Toman put it: there is little that can usefully be done with a serious underestimate of infinity. But I ‘ll stop there as economists have complained enough about that study already, and anyway the subject of pricing nature is better discussed by my former colleague Rolf Groeneveld.

More positively then: at MARE I attended a splendid double session about large marine protected areas (MPAs). I was very interested as I have worked on MPAs in the past. Economists tend to be skeptical about MPAs as a management tool against overfishing because what they do in essence is split the stock and intensify the fishing in the unprotected part. Only if MPAs have other benefits such as protection from shocks or increased growth are they typically worth the costs. In addition MPAs can be used for a range of other goals such as biodiversity protection and economists have much less to say about that. This is perhaps because the direct benefits from biodiversity are less clear than that of a fish which can be sold.

The session was basically a series of reports  from a project about the human dimensions of large MPAs. A number of large MPAs have been appointed recently, mostly in the Pacific Ocean in areas that are scarcely inhabited. These large MPAs have been welcomed as they constituted large strides towards reaching the Aichi goals of protecting 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. They have also been criticized from a conservation point of view as being easy options to reach the area coverage goal, without actually protecting much in terms of biodiversity. This project however was about the human dimensions of large MPAs, that is, given that these areas are far away in areas with few to no inhabitants, do they indeed have low human impacts? That turns out not to be the case. I summarize a few points I found interesting here (and add my comments), but more can be found on the project’s website.

Kiribati PIPA
Coral reefs near Enderbury Island, Phoenix Islands Protected Area, Kiribati
By Dr. Randi Rotjan, New England Aquarium. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The case study of Kiribati showed that the MPA had been “sold” to the local community with promises of millions of dollars of ecotourism, investment in the local community and investments in the endowment fund associated with the area. After several years only a little of this has materialized and the local population is very disappointed. This seems to me a case of managing expectations and overselling the benefits of MPAs. MPAs are definitely no silver bullet and we should be careful about what we promise about their effects. On the other hand the MPA also seems to realize benefits that were not originally planned such as a sense of pride in that Kiribati, as a small island nation is a leading example of large MPAs.

Rapa Nui
Ahu Tongariki view – Rano Raraku moai – statues – Easter Island – Rapa Nui – Isla de Pascua.
By David /

Other large effects have been changes in institutions regarding the rights of indigenous peoples in Rapa Nui (Easter island) where a large proposed MPA was stalled because the planning process became entangled in the process of how the peoples of Rapa Nui have the right to govern themselves. The proposed large MPA overlaps both the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Rapa Nui. The peoples of Rapa Nui have a say in the governance of terrestrial matters of the island, but not in matters involving the territorial sea, let alone the EEZ. When the government of Chile consulted the peoples of Rapa Nui on the proposed MPA, it launched the discussion whether the peoples of Rapa Nui shouldn’t also be allowed to govern their own sea.

Meanwhile, in yet another part of the Pacific, the large MPA in Palau  seems to have gained accepted by the local people, in the hopes that it will improve the tuna fisheries and generate future increases in ecotourism. I sincerely hope for the people of Palau that the tuna improvement expectation is based on a secondary benefit of MPAs such as protection of a nursery ground. Tuna is a highly migratory species, and my economic instincts tell me that any improvements by one nation will be offset by another nation.

But then again I am a practioner of the dark arts….Muahahahahahaha