Marine Protected Areas: Tokens or Treasures?

Are marine protected areas enough to protect fisheries, coral reefs and clean water? Rod Salm/TNC

Are marine protected areas enough to protect fisheries, coral reefs and clean water? Rod Salm/TNC

By Mark Spalding, senior scientist, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team

It’s a little hard to get your head around what Australia did last November. I live in a country, the United Kingdom, that covers 250,000 km² — not a huge country for sure, but not tiny. Australia declared new marine protected areas that cover almost ten times that area — some 2.3 million km².

Well, as you might imagine, there have been some pretty big celebrations about this, certainly among conservationists, but also among a public that widely supported the declaration.

I’m delighted that Australia has upped the ante for marine conservation everywhere in this way. This sort of move should excite and inspire, in much the same way that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has already done.

They have shown us that large-scale conservation can be done, and can be done with full participation and broad support, and that it can be income-generating — good for people as well as nature.

But not everyone’s happy. Some — including Bob Pressey, a highly regarded conservation scientist in Australia — has called these new sites “residual protected areas.”

He suggests that these sites are not in the best places either for averting threats or protecting diversity. He also says that they don’t really have teeth, and it’s true that, on declaration, the new parks required no immediate changes “in the water” — that ongoing activities such as fishing, and even mineral extraction can carry on.

That’s worrying of course, and might lead to a sense that they aren’t going to do as much good as might be hoped. But it’s an important first step.

Quite often, the loose framework of initial protection becomes a skeleton for building tighter protection. The Great Barrier Reef was a bit of a “paper park” when it was first declared in 1975, with remarkably few controls over some pretty damaging activities such as seabed trawling.

It took 30 years, but the basic framework of the park was totally re-vamped in 2004 and it’s now a real gem, with growing biomass in many of the more protected zones. There’s also been some great engagement with adjacent land-owners and communities, working together to try and deal with land-based pollutants and sediments which arise beyond the park boundaries.

But Pressey has another concern: that these new MPAs are distractions. He believes they will create the appearance of marine conservation, but in remote locations far from any commercial interest or from any significant pressures. The government gets huge kudos for doing something so bold and brave, the conservation organisations get wild with excitement, then everyone thinks the job is done. Meanwhile, the real pressures continue unabated elsewhere, but when new efforts for marine conservation are called for, no one will want to pay attention.

These are valid concerns that need serious thought. 

Australia’s new MPAs are just the latest in a growing list of massive marine parks — Chagos, the Remote Pacific Islands, Papahanaumokuakea, the Phoenix Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands — exotic names of remote places, each several times larger than Switzerland, or Washington state.

Big bold declarations like these are shifting the global statistics on marine protection. Certainly they should be celebrated but are they enough? 

First, it’s critical that such declarations lead to real protection — that means real management. Remote areas totalling ten times the size of the UK still need patrolling and managing and that comes in at quite a cost. But assuming they can do this then, in my book, protecting 2.3 million km² of ocean could never be wrong. Here’s why:

  • Nowhere in the oceans is safe from threat and starting early with protection in places where there are few current pressures can be way easier than waiting until things are already degraded.
  • Protecting large, remote and pristine places is important from a biodiversity conservation perspective.
  • These areas probably include some of the last near-pristine places in the ocean — refugia for species, and for processes that have become so altered elsewhere that we have almost forgotten what the sea should be like.

But that’s not the full answer to my question. Are they enough? Coastal populations are booming, bringing growing demands on marine space — for fisheries, mineral extraction, renewable energy, recreation. And the footprint of threats is also growing — from pollution, over-harvest, habitat loss and climate change.

MPAs can protect against these threats. They also have the capacity to help generate, and sustain, the wealth of biodiversity benefits that spring from our oceans — more fish, cleaner water, safer shorelines and so on.

But to achieve all these benefits it’s not just about increasing protected areas coverage, it’s also about getting it in the right places. Most of the threats, and of the rich wealth of benefits we take from the ocean, are found concentrated close to people — we are the users, but we are also the polluters. So to look after the ocean we can’t just look out beyond the horizon.

Marine conservationists need be as savvy as politicians and business leaders. If we see a door open we push on it, but we keep knocking elsewhere too. We thank and we praise for great efforts such as Australia’s 2.3 million km2, but we constrain our festivities a little and look beneath the headlines just as we look beneath the waves to learn the whole story.

The hardest part of our task may actually be conserving the small, unique, highly used patches of ocean where just a few hectares of protection make a big difference, but only a very small headline!

Editor’s Note:  This is the first in a series of blogs on the status of marine protected areas (MPAs).  A forthcoming paper co-authored by Mark Spalding will provide a detailed look at how far the world has come toward protecting marine spaces — and how much more work there is to be done.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Mark Spalding is a senior scientist with the Conservancy’s Global Marine Team. He is based in the Conservation Science Group at the University of Cambridge. It’s a wonderful and sometimes awe-inspiring place to work—in the same block where Newton and Darwin worked, where the first computer was built and the double-helix discovered. He’s worked on big global studies of coral reefs and mangrove forests, but inspiration for all this work has come from the sheer thrill of being close to nature—be it an exotic coral reef or the pond in his garden.

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