Q&A with Visiting Scholar Justin Alger

Justin explains the marine conservation research he’ll be undertaking in Australia.

Justin Alger is a Visiting Scholar of the Sydney Environment Institute.

Justin is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science department at The University of British Columbia majoring in international relations, with a focus on global environmental politics. He holds an MA in International Affairs from Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, as well as a BA (Honours) from McMaster University in History, with a minor in Business. Prior to beginning his doctoral work at UBC, Justin was a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC), working on various projects funded by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the Canadian government. He was one of the primary researchers on the Nuclear Energy Futures Project, which examined the future prospects of and global governance implications for nuclear energy.

He’s in Australia for a few months as part of his research. We find out what he’ll be doing Down Under

Alger Profile

What does your PhD look at? What stage are you at?

In the last decade states have created 15 of the world’s 16 largest marine protected areas (MPAs). This rapid and sudden growth in large MPAs is a major shift in global marine conservation from small, often poorly managed MPAs to very large, contiguous, and often fully protected marine reserves. The median MPA is only about 5 km2 whereas these large MPAs all exceed 200,000 km2, roughly the size of the state of Victoria. The largest reserve is over 1.2 million km2, which is bigger than New South Wales.

My PhD dissertation looks to answer two questions. The first is why has this global shift in marine conservation happened? And the second is what explains why some of these large MPAs are better designed and managed than others? I’m looking at one MPA in each of Australia, Palau, and the US to answer these questions.

My research has been progressing well, and I should be finished by the end of this calendar year. I have a few chapters already written, with only some fieldwork in Australia and Palau remaining before I finish up.

What conclusion do you think you will get to?

There are two major conclusions to my research. The rise of large MPAs as a major marine conservation tool in the past decade is largely the result of environmental NGOs lobbying for them. The Pew Charitable Trusts and National Geographic have been particularly proactive in identifying potential sites for large MPAs and convincing governments to create them. They’ve been instrumental in nearly all of the large MPAs established in the last decade.

The second conclusion is that these MPAs can vary quite a bit in terms of how effective they are, and that’s because of the influence of various industry interests in a given region. For example, if the fishing industry relies on a given region, a large MPA there is more likely to allow commercial fishing in portions of it or potentially all of it. On the other hand, if an area is especially important for the ecotourism industry it is more likely to have strict restrictions on extractive activity like fishing.

Why are you in Australia for your research?

I’m in Australia because the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, bordering the Great Barrier Reef, is one of my case studies. The Gillard government set it up in 2012 as a part of a network of MPAs around Australia, but Abbott put the area under review after taking office. Right now it’s uncertain how the government will try to balance conservation goals with industry interests in the area, so I’m here to try to better understand the dynamics of that.

What field work will you be undertaking here?

My Australia fieldwork will involve travel to Canberra and Cairns to talk to government officials, NGO members, and industry representatives who were involved in the initial designation of the MPA, and the ongoing discussions around it. I’ll also be travelling to Palau for a month to carry out similar research there about Palau’s recent closure of its entire exclusive economic zone to foreign fishing.

Why did you make marine conservation the focus of your work?

We knew very little about the state of our oceans until 10-15 years ago, when scientific research started to reveal just how quickly we were diminishing them. There’s been this longstanding assumption that the oceans are too vast for humans to have much of an impact, but that’s not the case. Overfishing and climate change are devastating marine ecosystems, which is bad for both the environment and for the industries that rely on ocean resources.

I’m also motivated for personal reasons. I’m a diver and an avid seafood consumer, so the protection of marine ecosystems and sustainable fisheries are important to me. My first ever dive trip was on the Great Barrier Reef back in 2010, and I was blown away by the diversity that I saw there. It’s well worth protecting.

What are you currently watching or reading?

I’m about a quarter of the way through Don Quixote. I figured it would make for a good travel companion!

What’s your bucket list for while you’re in Australia?

I’m definitely keen to get a couple dive trips in, and would love to do some hiking in Tasmania at some point. But otherwise I’m here on a mission, so you’ll mostly find me exploring some Sydney coffee shops while I write away.

For any questions and comments, you can contact Justin, via email alger.justinw@gmail.com