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New Study: Marine Protection Goals Are on Target, But Still Not Enough

"Most ecosystem services are coastal, and that’s where the majority of the threats are. We need to really scale up protection efforts in these same busy coastal waters where millions of people live and could benefit."
— Mark Spalding

By Darci Palmquist

According to a new report led by Nature Conservancy scientists and policy experts, the number of marine protected areas (MPAs) has increased fivefold in the last 10 years and the world is actually on track to meet its goal of protecting 10% of the oceans by 2020. 

Sounds like something to shout from the rooftops, right? Not quite, say the authors. Instead, they want the marine conservation community to see this as an opportunity for reassessment: A call-to-action to step up and look beyond the numbers. 

“It’s certainly progress and we should celebrate that,” says Mark Spalding, a Conservancy marine scientist and lead author on the report. “But there’s a lot of nuance behind these targets. More than that, is 10% really what we should be fixated on?” 

The study — developed in conjunction with the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and published in the Ocean Yearbook — assessed the state of ocean protection efforts to date and provides recommendations for how to achieve real success for the future. The authors reviewed 10,280 MPAs, covering 8.3 million square kilometers or 2.3% of the world’s ocean area, and found: 

  • A small number of large MPAs are responsible for much of the global growth: The 20 largest MPAs account for 60% of the entire global MPA coverage, with an increasing trend to cover remote and off shore areas.
  • By contrast, in terms of numbers, the majority of MPAs are small and are found in coastal and near-shore waters. Even with these there is a focus on sparsely populated areas. The average MPA is small and most are not effectively managed.
  • MPA coverage is highly variable — while 28 countries have now exceeded 10% coverage of their waters, some 111 are still at less than 1%.

All told, the study found that the world has added 6.6 million square kilometers in MPAs since 2013. But the authors stress that MPA coverage does not equal protection: MPAs can be ineffective due to failures in management or design. A simple numbers-based approach ignores the challenges of effectively designing MPAs to provide the most benefit for marine biodiversity and for people.

And this last point — designing MPAs for people — is crucial to get right. For the past decade or more, the conservation community has touted MPAs as tools to help reduce poverty and improve human wellbeing for local communities. While some are doing that quite effectively, they are rare. This study was the first to plot MPAs alongside coastal density, finding that most MPAs are in areas far away from people, in remote ecosystems that typically have high levels of biodiversity and few conflicting demands for ocean space. 

MPAs of the Future: Protecting for Ecosystem Services

The latest targets for marine protection — set forth in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11 — include, for the first time, a mandate to protect for ecosystem services and human wellbeing in addition to biodiversity. This is a positive step that will undoubtedly make MPAs more effective. But, say the authors, it will require more creative and critical thinking about where to place MPAs and how to design them to provide benefits to people such as food, fuel, recreation, livelihoods and more. 

 “This means we’re going to need to look in some new places,” says Spalding. “Most ecosystem services are coastal, and that’s where the majority of the threats are. We need to really scale up protection efforts in these same busy coastal waters where millions of people live and could benefit.” 

Spalding emphasizes that marine conservation in remote, pristine and diverse places is still important. But we also need to ask, what can MPAs do for us? Can MPAs help shore up all the ecosystem services on which billions of lives depend? 

Services such as:

  • Fish: The oceans provide us with a vast source of protein that could sustainably feed millions of people if managed responsibly.
  • Blue carbon: Vast stocks of carbon are sequestered and stored in mangroves, marshes and coastal muds.
  • Economies: Seafood, recreation and multi-billion dollar coastal and cruise tourism industries prop up entire regions.
  • Natural defense systems: Reefs and mangroves form barriers that can shrink waves and hold back floods. 

“This is a game-changer for how we establish MPAs in the future,” says Imen Meliane, director of International Marine Policy for The Nature Conservancy. “So far the conservation community has primarily looked at biological and ecological criteria to select protected areas. Achieving the new Aichi 11 target requires complementing our scientific approach and seriously looking at areas that provide high ecosystem services, which may not coincide with those of high biodiversity.” 

Another change under the new Aichi 11 target is what counts toward the 10% goal. The new target recognizes that “other effective area-based conservation measures” — such as no-take reserves, multiple-use MPAs and community-managed MPAs — should also be considered toward the goal of 10% protection The problem is that such areas have not yet been defined and are therefore open to interpretation. Should areas that ban shark finning be included? What about managed fisheries? 

“The 10% target has set a race towards a number, but we seem to have lost track of what we want to achieve in the first place,” says Meliane. “We are currently lacking the right standards for knowing what gets accounted in the 10%, and we need these for the number to be meaningful.” 

Spalding notes as an example the internationally agreed governance around Antarctica, which provides effective conservation but is not accounted for as an MPA. If it were, he says, we’d already be at the 10% target. 

It’s Time To Start Thinking About 100% of Our Oceans 

Will MPAs work in a world of 9 billion people, with increasing demands on the oceans for seafood, livelihoods, energy, transport, building space and more? Will they work in the face of a changing climate that includes warmer waters, rising seas and ocean acidification? 

“It’s important to keep in mind that MPAs are not a panacea, and even more so that they can’t work well if the surrounding areas are not cared for,” says Meliane. 

The challenges of marine conservation are notable. The oceans are fluid and unbounded, a place where everything is interconnected. Some species have massive ranges, while others are relatively local but still depend on dispersal for eggs or larvae. The threats — from pollution to warming waters to disease — are also not contained and drift easily across the unmarked boundaries of MPAs. 

To solve these challenges, marine conservationists need to come together with fishermen, governments and other ocean users to make the decisions that will affect billions of people who live near coastlines and depend upon marine resources. 

There’s nothing worse than raining on a parade, yet it would be a mistake to view Spalding and Meliane as pessimists about MPAs. As Spalding wrote recently, Australia’s latest 2.3 million-square-kilometer MPA reserve system — which many conservationists decry as ineffective — may not be perfect, but it’s an inspiring step. 

“Meeting the 10% target would be a huge leap beyond where we were 10 or 20 years ago,” says Spalding. “But, there’s still 90% of the ocean left. We are failing ourselves and future generations if we don’t think harder about total ocean management.” 

This means thinking about ocean and land-use planning as a cohesive whole. 

“The bigger picture is absolutely critical,” he says. “It’s time to start thinking about 100% of our oceans.” 

 

Darci Palmquist is a senior science writer with The Nature Conservancy.

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