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What Are We Actually Protecting In The Ocean?

By Carissa Klein, James Watson, Ben Halpern and Jennifer McGowan

One of the great recent success stories in conservation is the rapid increase in the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs). Since 2006, there has been a staggering growth of 10 million km2 of new MPAs globally, a nearly four-fold increase over the past decade.

Small reef fish find shelter from predators in coral thickets. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.
Small reef fish find shelter from predators in coral thickets. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

In 2010 in Aichi Japan, the global community established a number of conservation targets through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), with one (Aichi Target 11) aimed at setting aside a full 10 percent of the earth’s oceans – especially ‘areas of particular importance for biodiversity’ – by 2020. This target is intended to drive MPA establishment this decade.

Yet there has been no baseline for measuring how well our marine species are represented in protected areas. Until now.

A new paper we have published in Nature’s Scientific Reports assesses the overlap of global MPAs with the ranges of 17,348 marine species (fishes, mammals, invertebrates). We have discovered some sobering results: most marine species are not well represented within MPAs and several hundred species are not covered at all.

A stonefish lingers on a bed of Acropora. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.
A stonefish lingers on a bed of Acropora. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Marine protected areas are a key management tool for biodiversity conservation. Some are no-take zones, while others allow limited fishing and other industry. They help support marine biodiversity by providing safe places for breeding, migration and recovery.

There is also increasing evidence that, when well managed and well placed, they can enhance fisheries outside their boundaries through accumulated benefits inside the MPAs ‘spilling out’ to areas open to fisheries.

Even at this time when more areas of the sea are protected than ever before in human history, total area protected remains below international targets. A core question to ask, then, is how our global efforts stack up for conserving biodiversity and where are key priority areas for expanding protection to meet global targets?

A small and beautiful seasnail species of Belize. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.
A small and beautiful seasnail species of Belize. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

A guiding principle in conserving global biodiversity is that all species should have some part of their range in protected areas. Sadly, a full 97 percent of the 17,438 marine species that we considered have less than 10 percent of their ranges represented in the stricter forms of MPAs. Countries with the largest number of “gap species,” whose ranges lie entirely outside of protected areas, include developed nations like the U.S., Canada, and Brazil.

The good news is that our findings contain a silver lining. The majority of species that are very poorly represented live in waters under national jurisdictions (approximately 200 nautical miles from shore). Thus, nations have the ability and authority to better protect biodiversity.

A great example of a region with a high number of unprotected species that is working towards safeguarding their marine biodiversity can be found in the Coral Triangle.

Found in coral reef habitats, the Hawksbill sea turtle is a critically endangered species. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.
Found in coral reef habitats, the Hawksbill sea turtle is a critically endangered species. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Under the Coral Triangle Initiative for Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security, the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and East Timor have pledged to work together to build a network of regional MPAs that represent marine habitats and species while simultaneously ensuring that important fishing areas remain accessible.

As countries embark on MPA establishment, it is imperative that new MPAs are located in places that help better represent the full range of biodiversity.

Our collective efforts should offer protection to everything from invertebrates and algae inhabiting the muddy continental shelves all the way up to the biggest whales traversing the high seas. In the ocean, we need to protect the full range of habitats and species for protection to ensure that all are healthy.

Countries have a tendency to think bigger is better when it comes to MPA establishment. This is often not true. Instead, it is the quality of the MPA that counts, and quality in part requires that a range of biodiversity is included.

A diversity of colorful tropical fish are associated with reef habitats. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.
A diversity of colorful tropical fish are associated with reef habitats. Photo ©XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Creating new MPAs depends as much upon smart governance and partnerships as biological and ecological needs. Protected areas can affect economies by impacting mineral extraction and livelihoods by limiting fishing. These social and economic issues must be taken into account if we have any hope of establishing effective MPAs.

With the first global baseline now freely available, nations have the ability to measure their own conservation progress and effectively plan for future protected areas. Halfway through the period for achieving the CBD’s Aichi’s goals, we haven’t a moment to lose.

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Carissa Klein is research fellow in the department of Geography, Planning, and Environmental Management at The University of Queensland.  James Watson is Director of Science and Research with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and an Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Ben Halpern is a Professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California Santa Barbara. Jennifer McGowan is a PhD candidate in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at The University of Queensland.