TNC Science Brief

Ocean Conservation Doesn’t Have to be Zero Sum

Whale watching from a zodiac in St. Andrews by the Sea, Canada. © Anastasia Tompkins/TNC Photo Contest 2018

New research shows that a strategic increase in ocean protection—that does not have to come at the expense of economic prosperity—could achieve triple benefits in biodiversity protection, fisheries sustainability and climate change mitigation.

The Gist

Writing in Nature, an international team of 26 authors offers the most comprehensive assessment to date of where ocean protection could safeguard over 80% of the habitats for endangered marine species, potentially increase fishing catches by more than eight million metric tons, and help prevent the release of carbon from marine sediments.

The study does not provide a single map for ocean conservation, but it offers a first-in-kind framework for countries to decide which areas to protect depending on their national priorities. However, the analysis shows that 30% is the minimum amount of ocean that the world must protect in order to provide multiple benefits to humanity through comprehensive sustainable management.

The Big Picture

To identify priority areas, the authors—leading marine biologists, climate experts, planners and economists—analyzed the world’s unprotected ocean waters based on the degree to which they are threatened by human activities that can be reduced by marine protected areas now and in the future. They then developed an algorithm to identify areas where protections would deliver the greatest benefits across the three complementary goals of biodiversity protection, seafood production and climate mitigation.

“Our research provides evidence that the time has come to retire the narrative that conservation is at odds with economic prosperity. This work sets the foundation for the next era of ocean conservation to be one that truly places biodiversity and people at the heart of national conversations,” said Dr. Jennifer McGowan, Spatial Planning Technical Coordinator, The Nature Conservancy & Research Associate, Center for Biodiversity and Global Change at Yale University.

“As the world prepares to set the global agenda for the next decade of climate and biodiversity policy, this research provides the bedrock upon which decisions-makers can map and plan interactions with the ocean to deliver multiple benefits for people and biodiversity. This must be the time to build prosperous and sustainable ocean economies and this research points out how to do that.”

The Takeaway

The study’s range of findings helps close a gap in knowledge about the impacts of ocean conservation, which to date have been understudied relative to land-based conservation.

“The ocean covers 70% of the earth—yet, until now, its importance for solving the challenges of our time has been overlooked,” said Dr. Boris Worm, a study co-author and Killam Research Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “The benefits are clear. If we want to solve the three most pressing challenges of our century—biodiversity loss, climate change and food shortages —we must protect our ocean.”


Cara Cannon Byington

Cara Cannon Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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