How Marine Protected Areas Help Save the Ocean
The ocean quietly unites global communities in a profound way. And yet, the ocean faces more threats today than ever before in history – but marine protected areas could help.
The facts and forecasts are astounding. More than 25 percent of the world’s fisheries are overexploited, and most are operating at maximum sustainable levels without these fisheries expanding..
The rate of ocean acidification, which occurs when the ocean absorbs too much carbon, far exceeds what is natural. At the turn of the century, more than half of the world’s ocean species could be threatened with extinction.
People continue to carelessly develop and destroy the world’s largest ecosystem. Ocean conservation is not only essential to safeguard biodiversity, but by protecting the ocean we also protect ourselves.
A healthy and vibrant ocean supports healthy communities and a healthy planet. We see this connection in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG 14: Life underwater. SDG 14 has seven main targets which aim to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. the ocean is deteriorating under climate change, our communities are also in danger. For some, that could mean watching special coastal places, including their homes, washed away by intensifying storms. For others, it could mean the loss of the fish that supports livelihoods.
Protect the global ocean
A recent study of my research shows how marine protected areas (MPAs) are a tool to achieve ocean sustainability. Today, only 6.4% of the world’s ocean is protected, and only 2.7% strong protection against harmful activities, despite scientists calling for strong protection of at least 30%.
Last year, several countries have joined the Global Ocean Alliance and accepted protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, a target called 30 × 30. If we can do this, we can halt the loss of biodiversity, secure fish and food for all, and maintain a healthy ocean that can cope with climate change.
Not all marine protected areas are created equal
MPAs, in one form or another, have been around for decades. In the broadest sense, an MPA is an area managed to protect certain elements of ocean life by defining areas where activities are – and are not – permitted. Today they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but quality is just as important to MPAs as quantity.
Over the years, the pressure to expand global MPAs has led some governments to protect residual unused areas or areas of less ecological value. This is done for avoid conflicts and have to make difficult decisions. Picking the fruit at hand may not produce the desired result. Our protected areas need to be in the right places and use the right regulations to ensure that MPAs can help us achieve sustainability.
MPAs can offer different levels of protection to ocean life. Levels of protection can be influenced by the conservation objectives, economic interests, and social and cultural needs of the area.
At one end of this spectrum, MPAs can be minimally protected. In these MPAs, some extractive activities are allowed to continue, such as the use of fishing gear that can inflict damage on species and habitats. There may still be conservation benefits, even if they are modest.
On the other hand, MPAs can be highly or fully protected. In these MPAs, only light extraction and destructive activities are authorized (highly protected) or not at all (fully protected), which guarantees the best protection of biodiversity.
On paper, some countries have already exceeded the 30% target, but if MPAs don’t have strict regulations, they are unlikely to provide the conservation benefits we need. For example, in France, 33.7% of the country’s waters are protected, but less than 2% of this area is fully protected. The more powerful MPAs have at least part of the area fully protected from harmful activities.
On Canada’s Atlantic coast, northern bottlenose whales swim freely in the rich waves of an underwater canyon in an MPA known as the “Gully”. As one of the oldest MPAs in Canada, this area protects hundreds of species, including whales and dolphins, fish, crabs, octopus and other invertebrates, not to mention the the greatest diversity of cold water corals in eastern Canada.
Located offshore, the Gully might have little local attachment, but fishermen use the area, connecting this distant place to Canadian communities. Although he is out of sight, the Gully is not out of mind.
The Gully had been criticized in the past for lax regulations on certain activities. Then, in 2019, the Canadian government banned oil and gas activities, mining and bottom trawling in all MPAs in Canada. Through its three management zones, including a fully protected area from surface to seabed, the Gully continues to shine as a conservation success story.
The path to follow
MPAs have the potential to help us meet SDG 14 targets. They can help maintain healthy ecosystems and sustainable fisheries.
They are less able to help with other SDG 14 targets, such as reducing pollution or the impacts of acidification. MPA regulations stop at their limits, but our detrimental effects do not. MPAs are one type of tool in a larger toolbox that also includes fisheries management, navigation regulations, climate change policies, etc.
In an ever-changing and increasingly busy ocean, our MPAs must work with each other and with other tools. Together, this forms an overview of ocean management across habitats, ecosystems and geopolitical boundaries.
On our way to protect a third of the ocean, we must protect the right areas, with strict regulations, and without exacerbating injustice and inequity in communities affected by conservation decisions. While today’s goal might be 30 × 30, the real ambition is to see 100% of the ocean managed sustainably to ensure a prosperous future for all.