It’s no secret that the ocean, which covers more than 70 percent of the planet, is in crisis. It has been hit hard by climate change, acidification, pollution, and overfishing, with about 90 percent of fish stocks fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. In addition to threatening marine biodiversity, these rapid changes also have a major impact on people, as fish is the primary source of protein for 17 percent of the world's population and fishing provides some 260 million jobs worldwide.
Science-based catch limits have proved valuable in helping fish stocks rebuild. Another particularly effective measure to ensure the regeneration of marine ecosystems, in the face of all the threats weighing on them, is the creation of protection zones. Like national parks on land, these, marine protected areas are places where human activities are regulated to allow the oceans to regenerate and continue to provide benefits to human communities. Members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommend fully protecting at least 30 percent of all marine habitats, with no fishing or mining activities allowed. However, only 3 percent of the ocean is safeguarded—well short of the IUCN goal and a stark contrast to the 12 percent of the planet’s land area that is currently protected. Therefore much work remains to provide meaningful marine protection, though significant efforts have been made in recent years. In less than ten years, several large marine protected areas, have been announced or created in the waters of the United Kingdom, the United States, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Palau, Kiribati and Mexico These vast marine reserves, in which any industrial activity is forbidden, should eventually cover a total area of about eight million square kilometers.
At the Grenelle de la Mer ocean summit in 2009, in response to public input, France pledged to create marine protected areas in 20 percent of its waters—half of which as fisheries reserves Since then, the country has been working toward this goal, particularly in its overseas territories, which represent 97 percent of French maritime areas. In 2014, New Caledonia created the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, covering approximately 1.3 million square kilometers – or nearly its entire exclusive economic zone. In 2016, the French Southern Territories Marine Reserve off the coast of Antarctica was expanded to more than 670,000 square kilometers, including 120,000 square kilometers of full protection—a key first for France. Following these major advances, France announced this year that 22 percent of its waters were now protected, surpassing the target of 20 percent.
However, many French marine protected areas are still works in progress and do not yet have adequate means for management and monitoring. According to the IUCN, marine protected areas can allow moderate and non-industrial use of natural resources that is compatible with nature conservation. However, in the Southern Territories, for example, freezer long liners over 50 meters long carrying crews of about thirty sailors are allowed in the majority of the waters of the reserve. Similarly, the Coral Sea Nature Park in New Caledonia, more than three years after its creation, does not benefit from concrete conservation measures. The majority of the pristine reef ecosystems in this area are not protected and nothing excludes sea bed mining within the Park. Finally, the marine protected area created last year around Clipperton Island covers only 0.4 percent of the waters, even though the area is an important breeding ground for Pacific bigeye tuna, a species that has been depleted to about a third of its historic levels In the end, only 1.3 percent of French waters is legally exempt from industrial fishing and can meet the international definition of a marine protected area. The Grenelle goal of 10 percent of fishing reserves in French waters by 2020 is therefore far from being achieved.
France, which showed strong global leadership on climate change with the Paris agreement, now has the opportunity to apply those same high standards to ocean conservation. The national strategy for creating and managing marine protected areas is promising: France plans to build its network of reserves and increase the number of fully protected areas, as it did in the French Southern Territories. France could continue on the path by preserving other large, still pristine marine areas in its overseas territories, for the sustainable benefit of fisheries and local populations. In New Caledonia, NGOs and scientists have been promoting the creation of fully protected areas within the Natural Park of the Coral Sea for several years. Similarly, in French Polynesia, the population of the Austral and Marquesas archipelagos recently held demonstrations to demand the creation of a marine protected area off their coasts and to protect artisanal fishery from industrial fishing, which is developing in the archipelago waters. In addition, a coalition of several French and international scientists has proposed the strict protection of over 100,000 square kilometers of ocean off of Clipperton Island. Finally, the waters off the islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam in the Southern Territories are not yet being fished from 16 to 200 nautical miles out from the islands, despite being rich in tuna; they could be protected at no economic cost now, before large-scale exploitation begins. These moves are encouraging and could lead to the establishment of large protected zones in French waters, similar to those created by other big oceanic countries. With the world's second largest exclusive economic zone, spanning 11 million square kilometers, France has the means to become a world leader in ocean conservation.
Contributors: Prof. Daniel Pauly (Professor at the University of British Columbia), Isabelle Autissier (President of WWF France), Jean-François Julliard (Director of Greenpeace France), Romain Troublé (Director of the Tara Expeditions Foundation), Patricia Ricard (President of the Oceanographic Institude Paul Ricard), Pierre-Yves Cousteau (Founder of Cousteau Divers), Dr François Sarano (Fonder of Longitude 181), Prof. Bernard Salvat (Professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes)
This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post