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A network of protected areas in the world's oceans could conserve fish stocks, create jobs and increase food security for poor countries according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study says that although such a network would cost billions of dollars each years to run, the investment would bring 'substantial' returns.

Andrew Balmford, one of the authors of the research, says that developing countries would reap many benefits if fishing and other human activities were banned or restricted in 20 to 30 per cent of the world's oceans. This is the extent of marine protected areas (MPAs) recommended by the 2003 World Parks Congress to address human impacts on the marine environment.

The study estimates that an MPA network of that size would cost between US$5 billion and US$19 billion annually to run. In contrast, it notes, Western nations spent US$15-30 billion in 2002 in subsidising their fishing fleets, some of which are responsible for overfishing stocks in the developing world.

By making fisheries more sustainable, the key source of protein for many of the world's poorest people would be made more secure, Balmford told SciDev.Net.

A network of protected areas of the size recommended by the WPC would create about one million jobs, according to the study, he says. And most of these would be in developing countries.

Other benefits include the largely unseen services provided free by natural systems, such as protection of coastal communities from storms and floods; and supporting marine-based tourism.

In order to establish MPAs in their waters, however, developing countries will need money and training.

"Support from the developed world is essential," says Balmford. "Reducing developed world subsidies to distant-water fleets operating in the seas around developing countries would be an important first step."

Justin LeBlanc of the International Coalition of Fisheries Associations, a network of national associations, says the study is "overly simplistic".

"To propose some arbitrary percentage of the world's oceans as MPAs, regardless of cost, fails to recognize the very local implications of any established MPA," he says.

"While government costs on a broad scale may be comparable to the perceived level of global subsidisation of the fishing industry, that has nothing to do with the costs and impacts on local fishing communities nor the costs associated with fishing's contribution to local and global food security."

According to the United Nations, just 0.5 per cent of the planet's oceans are currently protected. Unsustainable fishing practices are taking their toll on marine stocks and populations of numerous species have collapsed.