Globally, 6.35% of the ocean is protected in some way, but of this small portion of the sea, only 1.89% is truly closed to human activities.
These vital marine habitats, called no-take zones, represent the highest classification of marine protected areas (MPAs), which were first introduced at the 1962 World Congress on National Parks. MPAs prohibit or restrict fishing, drilling, mining and any other extraction of natural resources from the given area. But environmentalists say their name may be slightly misleading.
“Most MPAs allow some degree of extractive use, and some are even completely open to commercial fishing,” says Arlo Hemphill, ocean project manager for Greenpeace. The regulations, he says, only protect certain species and can only apply to oil and gas companies.
Other conservationists agree that current regulations do not go far enough and that time to save the oceans from the worst impacts of climate change may be running out. “We are living beyond the limits of what the planet can bear,” Mami Mizutori, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, said at the United Nations Ocean Conference last month.
The oceans are essential for the survival of life on earth. They produce and filter half of the planet’s oxygen and contain around 97% of the world’s water. They are also home to around 700,000 plant and animal species. But officials warn that at the current rate of extraction, the oceans may not be able to recover.
The vast majority of the sea, over 80%, remains unexplored by man, and while it’s hard to protect something we don’t fully understand, that’s no excuse to ignore it altogether. “Current perspectives on the climate crisis don’t even consider the oceans, even though they cover two-thirds of the Earth’s surface,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Urbina for Sentient Media. “Perhaps it’s time to think about the oceans in a radically new way.”
Non-compliance with global benchmarks
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the 17,700 existing MPAs that cover more than 11 million square kilometers of ocean lack “human and financial resources” to “properly implement conservation and management”.
A recent study published in Frontiers in Marine Science reveals “an urgent need to improve the quality, quantity, and representativeness of MPA protection in U.S. waters.” The term “representativeness” refers to regulations protecting certain resources that are ecologically important to a designated area, such as marine animals and habitats.
The researchers stress that MPAs must be “central elements” in the federal government’s goal to protect 30% of US lands and waters by 2030. But currently only 12% of US lands and 26% of US waters are protected. protected.
Globally, more than 100 countries, including the United States, have pledged to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, known as the 30×30 commitment. Experts say the target is ambitious, given they have already missed the previous target of protecting 10% of the oceans by 2020.
Fishing and offshore drilling interests are the fiercest opponents of ocean protection. Research published in 2021 found that conflicts between oil and gas industries and marine protection are increasing globally, with developers seeking licenses to operate in areas overlapping or adjacent to MPAs.
The “absolute minimum” necessary to protect marine biodiversity
Many researchers and conservationists believe that building more MPAs is key to saving the oceans. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) calls restricted areas “one of the best options for maintaining the health of our oceans and preventing further degradation”.
Greenpeace’s goal is even more ambitious. The non-profit organization calls for at least 30% of the ocean to be covered by fully or highly protected sanctuaries by 2030. “This is the absolute minimum that scientists tell us is necessary to maintain biodiversity and cushion the worst impacts of climate change,” says Hemphill. “It is also a goal that we believe is achievable within this timeframe, as long as the new UN Global Ocean Treaty is agreed this year and brought into force in a timely manner.”
But United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said there were signs “selfishness” could put the deal out of reach.
Creating a new treaty is a top priority for Greenpeace, Hemphill says, because it would tackle one of the biggest obstacles to protecting the oceans: in international waters, which cover nearly half of the sea, “You couldn’t even establish an MPA if you wanted to. The organization wants a ‘strong agreement’ that, at the very least, creates a centralized body with the power to create new MPAs, he says.
“What we don’t want to see is the deferral of that authority to existing relevant bodies such as regional fisheries management organizations,” Hemphill said. “Greenpeace and our allies are convinced that the current management regime has failed to protect biodiversity in international waters.
“The authority to protect global biodiversity” does not rest with global organizations such as the International Seabed Authority, which he said “has shown a clear bias in favor of launching high-level mining. sea”.
For MPAs to be more effective, Hemphill says they need “robust” planning guided by the support of local communities. “When creating MPAs, a plan is needed for how they will be protected, the management rules applied and how it will all be paid for,” he says.
Spots of Hope
While the state of the oceans often looks grim, some conservationists see reason for hope. Mission Blue, a non-profit organization founded by famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, is building a network of fully protected MPAs it calls “Hope Spots” in well-known parts of the sea. In April 2021, the Great Barrier Reef, home to 25% of marine life, has been designated Hope Spot.
Hope Spots are marine ecosystems with newly established protections or existing MPAs that need stronger ones. Others have not yet received AMP status, but they all have one thing in common. “If meaningfully protected, they can be a roadmap to restoring ocean health – the seeds of tomorrow’s healthy and thriving ocean,” says Brett Loveman, communications director for Mission Blue.
The 143 Hope Spots launched to date, covering 57,577,267 square kilometers of ocean, are “defended by local conservationists”, according to Mission Blue. Using his own work as a guide, Earle calls for public involvement in ocean protection, asking individuals to use “every means at your disposal” to build support for a network of MPAs “big enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet.”
“If everyone is doing their part, from policy makers to citizens, from teachers to students, from scientists to artists – everyone – there is no reason [the 30×30] goal cannot be achieved,” says Loveman.
Signs of change
In April, a paper from Princeton University warned that ocean life could be threatened with extinction if “the usual increase in global temperature” continues. But the marine life proved surprisingly resilient.
Studies show that marine habitats and species can recover if we make an effort to protect them, and in 2020 researchers found that the oceans could achieve “substantial recovery in abundance, structure and function of marine life” by 2050 if we mitigate “pressures” such as drilling, fishing and climate change.
Could more MPAs be the solution? Conservationist Jenna Sullivan-Stack, one of the authors of the Frontiers study calling for stronger protections for MPAs, certainly remains hopeful. In June, she wrote that the “next wave of ocean conservation in the United States” should include the creation of MPAs guided by contributions from local communities.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is well on its way. In 2014, the agency invited the public to designate ocean and Great Lakes waters as a special class of MPAs called national marine sanctuaries. Two of the nominations have already been designated as sanctuaries, with at least three others in progress or still under consideration.
For the Mission Blue team, it is the work of local communities to protect the oceans that offers the most hope. “There is nothing more inspiring,” says Loveman.