Marine protected areas are one of our best tools to secure the health and resilience of the ocean — over 70% of our planet. A marine protected area (MPA) is an area where measures to protect, manage and sometimes restore ocean health are applied. The aim is to preserve the quality and diversity of ecosystems, habitats and species, the essential services they provide, or simply the beauty of the marine world. MPAs became widespread after 1992 when the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed in Rio de Janeiro (see Five thousand protected areas). The reason so many countries place their trust in MPAs — as of 2015 there are more than 5,000 around the world — is that, when properly managed, they help ecosystem balance. MPAs where extractive activities are suspended give the ocean a breathing space, sometimes with excellent results in the amount and diversity of marine life. They also provide valuable information on what does and doesn’t work in terms of marine protection.
Many scientific studies have shown the effectiveness of marine protected areas. In 2011 a US research team collated the results of more than 150 studies published in specialist journals from 61 countries, showing a 446% increase in biomass (1) on average in protected areas (2). Both the number of species and the size of individuals within species increased. MPAs also have considerable benefits for local economies. On the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where zoning helps manage different uses, industries dependent on the reef such as tourism and fishing contribute over $3.5bn annually to the Australian economy and support nearly 70,000 jobs. A 2015 study shows that the cost of extending MPA coverage to 10-30% of the world ocean would be clearly justified by the end results. The estimated net benefits of increasing protection to 30% by 2050 range from a conservative $490bn (150,000 jobs) to an optimistic $920bn (over 180,000 jobs) (3). It is clear that MPAs are a pathway to a sustainable “blue economy”.
We learn at school how to assess consequences through experiments. So it’s surprising to see nations that have yet to establish proper MPAs claim “sustainable development” or “sustainable use” with no benchmarks to measure them by. This lack of monitoring and analysis is the more regrettable since the ocean, in terms of its quantifiable resources, amounts to the seventh largest economy in the world (4).
Isolated actions are no help
It is clear from even this brief account that the situation is worsening. The first and most serious problem is that the measures taken to date — MPAs or other mechanisms — are not enough to compensate for human impact on the ocean. We may save a few species of fish from over-exploitation but isolated actions won’t restore the diversity of ecosystems. A recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) shows a worrying decline in marine life: monitored populations of marine animals (5,829 populations of 1,234 species) have halved since 1970 (5). Fish stocks are falling rapidly and “if current rates of global temperature rise continue, the ocean will become too warm for coral reefs by 2050.”
How much progress has been made towards the 2020 target of the Convention on Biological Diversity? So far just 3.4% of the ocean is officially protected, and even then the level of protection is not adequate. The target was set decades ago before people were concerned about major changes to the ocean; these are now happening, with climate disruption, and ocean deoxygenation and acidification (see Global warming, actors and victims). If we reassess the level of protection required in light of the new problems on top of the familiar ones of overfishing and pollution — as was done at the World Parks Congress in Sydney last year — the target will have to be raised to at least 30% of the ocean (6).
We also need to ensure effective management of existing marine protected areas. MPA designation is just the start of the process. The real challenge is in delivering management that ensures the targets are met, particularly by establishing shared standards, cooperation between countries and a system for evaluating progress. This is the purpose of the Green List of Protected Areas, adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the Sydney congress (7). These structures will form the basis for a global community to help the concerned countries and environmental agencies.
Establishing standards raises the issue of applying them. New technologies will soon invalidate excuses — an MPA is too large, too remote, has insufficient staff. It will no longer be possible to hide behind a shortage of patrol boats or complain that fishermen (who often receive indirect pubic subsidies) are concealing their location data. The availability of remote monitoring technology with which to ensure laws are enforced means that illicit activities cannot be hidden forever, however vast the ocean. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Virtual Watch Room, provided in conjunction with a UK company, The Satellite Applications Catapult, gives countries with MPAs the evidence they need to arrest illegal fishermen.
No more excuses
New developments such as Google’s SkyBox satellite system will by 2018 provide a new source of high-resolution visual coverage around the world, including the ocean. The agreement between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the startup OneWeb, signed in June, covers the use of a complementary cuboid satellite system to connect the 50% of the world population not yet connected to the web, by the same date. There are no more excuses: the time has come to put MPAs in place as agreed under the CBD. In a few years’ time, governments and extractive industries will be held far more accountable than they have been up to now.
Signatory countries to the CBD have agreed a target of protecting 10% of the world ocean by 2020 through MPAs. But further measures will be needed to meet this target, including monitoring ocean areas outside national jurisdictions — the high seas — and restricting deep-sea mining. Such measures will increase the ocean’s resistance to future pressures, whether from the consequences of population growth, climate change or acidification.
Closely associated with MPAs are a range of local measures that contribute to ocean conservation, though that is not their primary aim. Grouped under the term Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Territories and Areas, these benefit ecosystems as well as fish stocks. As the mechanisms of marine spatial planning show, conservation activities must be integrated and coordinated, and conflicting uses of the seabed reconciled, if we are to achieve a sustainable process.
We also need greater exchange between experts on climate change and MPAs, both at the level of international negotiations and in the field. Climatologists have recently discovered that MPAs help mitigate carbon emissions by limiting the release of carbon held in coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and tidal marshes. But more needs to be done to ensure that ocean management and the measures put in place factor in high seas resources such as krill (planktonic crustaceans) and fish. It is astonishing that, in 2015, the discourse of carbon management extends to coastal ecosystems and the role of MPAs, yet makes so little mention of the high seas.
As we assess the challenges ahead, we need to factor newly acquired knowledge of marine climate change into the design of the MPA network. Unless we take account of the trends of ocean warming and acidification at regional level, there’s a danger that we won’t configure the MPAs and wider measures correctly. We will increasingly hear words like “sources” and “sinks” — locations that favour marine life — and “marine corridors” — vast strips of ocean running north-south alongside continents, whose protection needs to be more closely coordinated with the establishment of MPAs, as ocean warming drives species and ecosystems towards higher latitudes.
In some ways, there has never been a more exciting time for marine conservation as the changes and collaborations we bring about now will be fundamental to the wellbeing of future generations. There is still time to adopt new thinking and take the necessary measures. But we need to act now.
(1) The total mass of organisms in a given area or volume.
(3) Luke Brander, Corinne Baulcomb et al, “The benefits to people of expanding marine protected areas” (PDF), Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University Amsterdam, May 2015; and WWF, “Reviving the Ocean Economy: the case for action — 2015” (PDF), April 2015.
(4) WWF, “Marine protected areas: smart investments in ocean health” (PDF), May 2015.
(5) WWF and Zoological Society of London, “Living Blue Planet Report: species, habitats and human well-being” (PDF), September 2015.
(6) International Union for Conservation of Nature World Parks Congress, Sydney, Australia, 12-19 November 2014.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.