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How We Can Help Marine Protected Areas Save Our Ocean

A new 'whole ocean' approach to ocean conservation can serve marine life and people around the globe

July 25, 2022 By: Johnny Briggs Read time:

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  • Winter 2022
  • A New Generation's Ocean Literacy
  • How to Reverse the Ocean-Climate Crisis
  • How We Can Avoid the 'Danger Zone' of Climate Change
  • How We Can Help Marine Protected Areas Save Our Ocean
  • Indigenous Knowledge Is Essential for the Future of the Ocean
  • Our Ocean Is Choking on Plastic
  • The Global Ocean
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How We Can Help Marine Protected Areas Save Our Ocean

In January 1790, a ship named The Bounty landed on a small speck of land jutting out of the Pacific Ocean. The uninhabited island, barely 2 miles long and 1 mile wide, would remain home to the crew and their subsequent generations until this very day. The fact that The Bounty dropped anchor in such a small and desolate place was no accident—its isolation was its attraction. The crew were mutineers and they never wanted to be found.

Fast forward over two centuries to 2016 and the mayor of the island, an eighth-generation decedent of the lead mutineer, Fletcher Christian, was proudly announcing to the world that the Pitcairn Islands, as the archipelago is now known and which is a U.K. Overseas Territory, would house one of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPAs).

Four widely spread-apart islands make up the archipelago: Pitcairn, with a population of about 45 people; Ducie; Oeno; and Henderson, a raised coral atoll that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ducie has a distinction all of its own—it is the “closest” landmass on the planet to Point Nemo, which is known officially as “the oceanic pole of inaccessibility,” that point in the ocean that is farthest away from land. Nemo is Latin for “no one,” and Ducie is about 1,500 miles away. Some context for that distance: The astronauts aboard the International Space Station are about 258 miles from Earth at any given time, which means that those humans in space are often far closer to the pole of inaccessibility when they pass over it than Ducie Island is.

Under international law, a state has jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources within 200 nautical miles of its coastline. This means that areas such as the Pitcairn Islands have control over a huge swath of ocean. Over 836,000 square kilometers (322,781square miles) in this case, an area more than 3.5 times the size of the landmass of the U.K. But why would the Pitcairners, so isolated and low in number, choose to fully protect more than 99% of their waters in a marine protected area? It is because those who live closest to and most intimately with the sea often know best the challenges that are facing the global ocean—and what must be done to protect it.

For millennia the ocean, covering more than 70% of our planet’s surface, has provided direct benefits to the human race. Today these include providing employment for hundreds of millions of people and protein for billions more. The ocean regulates our climate, while absorbing and buffering us against the excess emissions and heat that we generate, and also offers intangible serenity through spiritual, cultural, and emotional connections. Many of these benefits, however, have come at a cost. Human activities are having a detrimental impact on the world’s ocean, including decreases in biodiversity and fish stocks. Today, at least a third of fish stocks are overfished, our seas are warming and becoming more acidic, and pollution, such as plastic, is ubiquitous, found at the ocean’s deepest point and in the stomachs of numerous species, including albatross and whales. At the same time, we are seeking new frontiers to exploit for oil, gas, minerals, and seafood, which could cause even further damage for decades to come.

Arresting the decline of the ocean ecosystem requires a holistic approach, incorporating the sustainable management of fisheries, the prevention of pollution, and the conservation of species and habitats. Marine protected areas such as Pitcairn’s have become a key part of the contemporary marine conservation toolbox. But they are actually one of the oldest forms of fisheries management. Coastal communities have long recognized that striking a balance between exploitation and protection of a resource is critical to sustaining a healthy marine environment. French Polynesian people, for example, for centuries have applied rāhui, an integrated, community-based approach to natural resource conservation often involving the strategic closure of an area to extractive activities to allow fisheries to replenish.

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According to the World Database of Protected Areas, approximately 8% of the ocean is contained within the nearly 18,000 MPAs in the world, most of which are much smaller than Pitcairn’s. However, the term “marine protected area” has become a catchall for many forms of spatial ocean management, and institutions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature each offers a different definition and categorization. As a result, levels of biodiversity protection within these areas vary widely, ranging from 100% fully protected (zero resource extraction permitted) to multiple-use areas (which may include commercial fisheries). Such a wide variety of MPAs makes it difficult to evaluate the conservation gains of these areas through percentage coverage figures alone.

A new publication, the MPA Guide, developed by a worldwide group of leading scientists, has tried to evaluate MPAs by each one’s level of protection and what stage of implementation it is in. The guide has found that a high level of protection and enforcement, maturity, long-term sustainable financing, stakeholder engagement, and community leadership make for strong conservation benefits. But it has also determined that MPAs’ effectiveness in protecting biodiversity vary substantially. In short, this means that of the 8% of the ocean now in MPAs, only 2.5% is in a highly or fully protected area, which shows just how much more work needs to be done.

To encourage the creation of MPAs by governments and stymie the decline of the ocean, international institutions have been setting global marine protection goals for the past two decades. Current targets are set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the CBD’s Aichi Target 11, both of which seek to effectively protect at least 10% of the ocean. And scientists, coastal communities, and more than 100 governments now agree that the global goal should be at least 30% protection by 2030 (also known as the “30 by 30” goal). Achieving this science-led goal will require a step-change in conservation. More than 8.7 million square kilometers (nearly 3.4 million square miles) of ocean must be protected per year this decade to achieve it—an area approximately the size of Brazil annually. This is daunting, but not impossible. Which all brings us back to an isolated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Pitcairn. 

Around 2010, the small community realized that the best way to protect its ocean heritage and to guarantee its ongoing sustainability was through the legal designation of a huge MPA. The designation, which Pitcairners alongside NGO partners including The Pew Charitable Trusts formalized over a number of years, included artisanal fishing zones up to 12 nautical miles from the coast of each of the four islands. As such, the community would fish for sustenance using handlines in perpetuity in the clear blue waters just off their coast. The rest of the exclusive economic zone was fully protected, with satellite monitoring ensuring that the waters were policed for illegal activity. With this, the Pitcairn Island community secured the long-term sustainability of its marine resource with an MPA designation.

Effectively achieving the 30 by 30 goal globally will require similar courage by other governments to forgo short-term commercial opportunity in exchange for the long-term development of sustainable blue economies. That will necessitate leadership from Indigenous and local peoples and the implementation of traditional ocean management approaches such as the proposed adoption of large rāhui in French Polynesia. It also will entail monitoring and enforcement from innovative platforms combining satellite technology with groundbreaking science and will call for long-term sustainable financing. The technology, systems, and processes needed to meet all of these requirements for 30 by 30 are available, proven, and accessible.

A second key element will be protecting the high seas—those daunting, lonely blue spaces beyond national jurisdiction that actually comprise 64% of the Earth’s surface and nearly 95% of the ocean's volume. Although seemingly impossibly isolated, the high seas are heavily exploited by international fishing fleets, some operating illegally. They also represent a frontier for the fast-evolving deep-sea mining industry, which is eyeing the rare minerals and other materials beneath the seabed. To manage such sectors requires the designation of MPAs on the high seas. Creation of those areas is dependent upon the United Nations completing the development of—and member nations agreeing on—a new treaty to protect areas beyond national jurisdiction.

The recent precedents for marine conservation are generally positive. Over the past year, new MPAs have included France’s largest fully protected area in the frigid waters of the French Subantarctic Lands, an expansion of the world-renowned Galápagos Marine Reserve, Tristan da Cunha’s designation of the largest fully protected areas in the Atlantic, and a shared transboundary commitment to protect the Eastern Tropical Pacific between Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama. Such a regional-network-approach as proposed in the Eastern Tropical Pacific will be critical to supporting the protection and rejuvenation of the ocean.

These new Pacific MPAs are not on the scale of Pitcairn’s, but their interconnectivity makes them very effective. The tenet underpinning the interconnectivity idea is simple: Ocean species, human activities, and chemical and physical oceanography transcend national marine boundaries. And highly migratory species travel thousands of miles to breed and feed; international fishing fleets encircle newly designated MPAs; and regulatory bodies with different sectoral mandates operate in the same geographical space. Interconnectivity brings a holistic regional approach to marine conversation that works to address this complex latticework of biological and human interactions.

This new approach envisages a constellation of MPAs of various sizes and levels of protection, connected by “biological corridors” shielding migratory species from human harm and underpinned by regional collaboration and good governance, equitable management, sustainable long-term financing, and effective monitoring and enforcement. Management of networks of regional MPAs allow these spaces to interconnect over huge areas and account for variables such as changing climatic conditions, economic and cultural needs, and emerging technological innovations.

Such a “whole ocean approach” also does not pit MPAs and fisheries against each other, but rather considers that protected areas and fisheries management are both important elements when making policy and allows disparate stakeholders to operate synergistically. Still, despite the scientific consensus pointing to these interconnected networks as best practice, policymakers need to be much more consistent in embracing this approach. A recent study of reefs, for example, found that a majority of corridors between key habitats remains unprotected.

We can and we must do better. Science is providing a better understanding of how to ensure a healthy and biodiverse ocean that serves both marine life and people around the globe. We know that MPAs are essential to that effort. And this regional approach to connected MPAs shows what we can accomplish by applying ambitious new ideas and collaborative policies and governance.  

Johnny Briggs is based in London for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.

The Takeaway

Protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 will require a “whole ocean approach”—ensuring that MPAs are interconnected by well-managed fisheries and protections of the high seas that forgo short-term commercial gain to develop long-term sustainable blue economies.

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