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Can We Protect the Ocean by 2030?

Overfishing, global warming, and other threats are driving momentum to conserve 30% of the seas by 2030

September 9, 2021 By: Tom Dillon Read time:

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Can We Protect the Ocean by 2030?

Since the dawn of humankind, the ocean has elicited nearly every imaginable emotion—respect, gratitude, humility, awe, curiosity, fear. And no wonder: The seas feed us, dictate much of our weather, shape our lands, produce half the oxygen we breathe, spawn life-changing storms, and harbor more biodiversity than any ecosystem on land. 

The ocean is many things and plays many roles in sustaining life on Earth. But here is one thing it is not: invincible. And the past several decades have brought waves of troubling news about the ocean’s health—from overfishing to warmer and more acidic waters from climate change, from pervasive plastic pollution to illegal fishing, and from the decimation of habitats on the coasts to damage even in the deep sea.

All of which has brought into focus the need for a conservation goal proportionate to the scale of the ocean and the variety of threats it faces. And over the past decade one has emerged: to protect and conserve at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030. 

Turkish free diver Sahika Encumen dives in the Bosporus’ Ortakoy coastline off Istanbul to raise awareness about plastic pollution, one of many threats the ocean faces.
Sebnem Coskun Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This target, known as 30 by 30 (and sometimes written as “30x30”), was first introduced on a broad stage at the 2014 World Parks Congress. With continued support from Pew and others, the goal gained more traction at the 2016 World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where members voted to adopt increasing the portion of the ocean that is highly protected to at least 30% to help effectively conserve biodiversity. Now, a global goal to protect and conserve at least 30% of lands and 30% of the ocean will be on the table for adoption as part of a larger set of conservation goals known as the “post-2020 framework” at the upcoming United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting, scheduled for this fall in Kunming, China (although it might be postponed to 2022). The goals and targets set out in the post-2020 framework must be ambitious, inclusive, and grounded in science as they will chart the course of global conservation efforts for at least a decade.

Support for increased ambition continues to grow, with more than 80 countries publicly committed to the 30 by 30 goal. In June, the Group of Seven leading industrial nations formed a “nature compact,” committing to “conserve or protect at least 30% of global land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030 as a critical foundation for the conservation and restoration efforts required this decade.” In their shared statement, the seven heads of state committed to “lead by example” to deliver inclusive, equitable, and just conservation goals.

Tourists explore an iceberg in the Southern Ocean offshore from the Antarctic Peninsula, an area where warming waters have caused the loss of sea ice.
Brett Monroe Garner Getty Images

And, as with any conservation effort, this one must fulfill that promise. Indigenous peoples and local communities are among the most effective stewards of biodiversity; however, historical approaches to conservation have not always respected their rights or sought their consent. Looking forward, the global conservation, science, and policy communities need to partner with Indigenous peoples and local communities who have successfully conserved the biodiversity on their land and sea for millennia, using traditional knowledge passed down through generations. As a new study on social equity in conservation efforts in the journal Frontiers notes, “long-term sustainability and effectiveness can be increased through creating strong local partnerships, integrating traditional knowledge and local management practices, recognizing and championing local leadership, and protecting Indigenous rights and tenure.”

With the participation and leadership of all the stewards of our environment, the global conservation community can have transparent and informed discussions about the proposed 30 by 30 targets and ensure all perspectives are equally shared and considered. Although the call to protect 30% of our global ocean by 2030 mirrors the same goal on land, Pew’s history to secure this target is deeper in marine conservation, and this article focuses on that.

Whatever the CBD ends up adopting as a post-2020 framework will become a kind of Paris Agreement for nature, with convention members working toward the agreed goals and targets and sharing periodic progress toward meeting them. 

The 30 by 30 target is informed by science. An analysis of numerous studies published in 2016 in the journal Conservation Letters looked at what level of conservation was needed to “achieve, maximize, or optimize” six objectives of marine protected areas (MPAs)—goals that essentially sum up the ocean’s value to life on Earth: protect biodiversity; ensure connectivity of wildlife populations among MPAs; minimize the risk of fisheries collapse and ensure sustainability; mitigate the adverse evolutionary effects of fishing; maximize or optimize fisheries value or yield; and benefit a range of groups (for example, local communities, fishing fleets, and conservationists). 

Over half of the 144 studies reviewed for the analysis found that more than 30% protection was needed to meet all six of the goals. Protecting 10% or less of the ocean, the researchers concluded, would meet only a fraction of those objectives. Today, according to the Marine Protection Atlas, almost 8% of the world’s ocean is protected—but with only around 2.5% set aside in highly protected zones, a status that yields far more benefits than do MPAs that allow large-scale fishing and other extractive activities.

As the authors of the analysis wrote: “All management strategies have drawbacks. However, establishing a global MPA target has many advantages which …  outweigh such shortcomings.” Specifically, the authors continued, MPAs are simple to explain, politically achievable, and can protect entire ecosystems, versus just one species. 

Of course, to be effective, an MPA—like any protected or conserved space anywhere—must be well designed, adequately financed, and have clear, feasibly enforceable rules. The wide variance of such parameters in the MPAs created over the past few decades has allowed some countries to claim they’re conserving vast areas of the ocean—when, in fact, they’re continuing to permit environmentally damaging extractive activities within those places.

That’s one reason Pew has called for achieving a 30 by 30 marine goal through effectively and equitably managed areas that are ecologically representative of their ocean regions. These could be either MPAs or classified as other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), which could include, for example, an area that Indigenous peoples or local communities are sustainably managing using traditional practices, without formal recognition by the regional or national government. OECMs are places that are managed or protected for reasons that may expand beyond environmental conservation but that—because of that management or protection—end up helping safeguard or restore thriving wildlife and ecosystems. And for the 30 by 30 marine effort to succeed, it’s vital that global leaders responsibly manage the other 70% of the ocean. This includes working to end illegal fishing, striving to maintain sustainable fish populations around the world, minimizing pollution, and other efforts.  

"More than 80 countries have publicly stated their support for 30% of the global ocean."

It’s almost impossible to overstate the benefits of a healthy ocean. Aside from directly supporting a dazzling diversity of life—countless fish, plants, corals, algae, seabirds, invertebrates, and marine mammals—the ocean is a cornerstone of the global economy, supporting trillions of dollars’ worth of activity annually, from fisheries, tourism, and recreation to shipping, power generation, and more. And although not all of these activities depend on a healthy marine environment, scientists have found that hitting the 30% target would be very good for the global economy. A 2020 independent cost-benefit analysis completed by more than 100 scientists found that protecting at least 30% of the planet’s land and ocean would require only 0.16% of the global gross domestic product—yet for every $1 invested in such conservation, humanity would reap $5 in goods and services from the planet.

Conversely, allowing a continued slide in marine health would almost certainly cause significant economic damage. Overfishing is a grave threat to our ocean. One-third of the world’s fish populations are overfished, and another 60% cannot sustain any increases in fishing, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Warmer and more acidic marine waters and pollution are killing coral reefs, jeopardizing the future of one of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems—and of the marine life reefs support. Unsustainable coastal development is damaging and destroying wetlands, salt marsh, seagrass meadows, and mangrove forests, all of which are critical habitat for myriad species and protect people living nearby from storm surge and other coastal flooding.

But there’s also cause for hope. Countries from the U.K. and Chile to Palau and Australia have taken major steps to safeguard large portions of their exclusive economic zones. In the U.S., President Joe Biden recently committed to conserve 30% of American lands and waters by 2030.

Workers load yellowfin tuna into a truck at a fishing port in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. One-third of the world’s fish populations are overfished, and another 60% can’t sustain any fishing increases.
Chaideer Mahyuddin AFP via Getty Images

And in areas where governments have successfully implemented large, highly protected MPAs, the results are encouraging. Marine life is flourishing thanks to these MPAs—in part because although fish neither know nor abide by MPA boundaries, the protected areas allow fish to feed and breed free from human threats, bolstering ecosystem health inside the MPA and fisheries in the surrounding waters. Recent studies of the Papahanaumokuakea MPA in Hawaii and the Galápagos Marine Reserve in the eponymous islands off of Ecuador showed that tuna fleets caught more fish following the creation of each protected area than they had before.

On the other hand, once overfishing or other ecosystem damage occurs, it can take decades or even centuries for affected species to fully recover. Among the many examples: the New England cod fishery collapse of the 1990s and the episodic obliteration of deep-sea corals by bottom trawling, in which heavily weighted nets are dragged indiscriminately across the seafloor.

Marine protections won’t reverse climate change but can help build resilience to its impact

But the data shows that conservation efforts, given ample time and sufficient enforcement, can work. For example, a study of reef sharks published in the journal Nature in 2020 examined video footage from 371 reefs in 58 countries and found almost no sharks on nearly 20% of the sites. The good news? The relative abundance of sharks was “substantially higher” in places with shark sanctuaries, area closures, and other measures.

Marine protections alone won’t reverse climate change but can help build resilience to its impact. Studies show that healthy wetlands, mangrove forests, oyster reefs, nearshore coral reefs, and seagrass meadows help absorb wave energy, lessening the impact of storms on coastal communities. Some of these ecosystems also boast extremely high carbon sequestration rates—in some cases five times greater than the rates in terrestrial forests. Other research suggests that life within MPAs, including fish and corals, is more resilient to warming waters than species in unprotected areas.

2030 is fast approaching and, in many countries, big conservation ideas can take years to come to fruition. However, one place where this could happen soon is in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, where the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is weighing proposals that, together, could bring the amount of global ocean protection to nearly 9%. And CCAMLR has shown it will act to preserve immense areas: In 2016, the commission established the Ross Sea region MPA, which covers almost 800,000 square miles and is the largest protected area on the planet—on land or sea.

In American Samoa, corals photographed three months apart show the effects of bleaching. Warmer and more acidic marine waters are killing coral reefs and jeopardizing the biodiverse ecosystems and marine life they support.
The Ocean Agency Ocean Image Bank

Assuming the CBD adopts the 30 by 30 target, every nation can start planning to help meet the goal. And some are already leading the way. Chile, for example, has designated 42% of its marine waters for protection and 21% of its land, and Australia has designated 41% of its waters for protection and 20% of its land. 

Pew is working toward 30 by 30 through numerous channels, including coalitions and partnerships. One of these, the Blue Nature Alliance, aims to catalyze 18 million square kilometers (7 million square miles) of ocean conservation over five years. The alliance is a partnership among Pew and Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, Minderoo Foundation, and the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation. Working alongside local partners, the science community, and policymakers, the alliance will apply a science-based and inclusive approach to ocean conservation, recognizing that areas must be well managed in order to help boost ocean biodiversity and fisheries and enhance the livelihoods of the people and economies that depend on them.

Also, after nearly a decade of working on large-scale conservation efforts, Pew has embedded the 30 by 30 marine goal in seven campaigns that span the globe, from the northern latitudes to the Southern Ocean. And we’re optimistic that, through the actions of governments and international ocean management bodies, a 30 by 30 marine target can be achieved. Chief among the many reasons for optimism is that far more people than ever—from scientific experts and world leaders to advocacy groups and citizens—recognize the need to act.

Visitors walk across a bridge amid mangroves in Gonenggati Mangrove Tourism Park in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, where youth created a tourist area to help preserve the trees. Healthy mangrove forests and other coastal ecosystems are critical habitat for myriad species and help buffer the damaging effects of storms, boosting the ocean’s overall well-being.
Basri Marzuki NurPhoto via Getty Images

Two factors are boosting this message as well: the fact that the science is sound and the growing realization that conservation of our land and sea is an economic asset, not a burden. Those points help political leaders and decision-makers stand up to opponents of ocean protection, allowing them to call attention to the long-term benefits of protection over the short-term gains that might come from unsustainable resource exploitation.

None of this guarantees success, of course. But today world leaders and the conservation community have more experience in designing, creating, and monitoring protected and conserved areas—and more science to support such action—which should make 30 by 30 attainable.

And with so much at stake, hitting the 30 by 30 target is the only reasonable path forward. The benefits to biodiversity, fisheries, coastal communities, economies, tourism, recreation, and the overall health of the planet are as clear as the consequences of failure.

Tom Dillon is a senior vice president at Pew, leading the organization’s work on conservation and environment initiatives in the United States and around the world.

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