• Jonny Dawson

Marine Protected Areas: Sink or Swim

Recent news about the growing international interest in providing greater protection towards our oceans presents a much-welcomed blip, in what is otherwise a steady stream of negative news related to the environment.

A target of protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans is gathering momentum ahead of the UN’s biodiversity summit (scheduled for October 2021) and is likely to be one of the main topics of discussion. Currently, it is estimated that only 7% of our oceans are under protection via the implementation of Marine Protection Areas (MPAs), with only 2.6% thought to be ‘highly protected’. Such a significant shift in international policy would symbolize a huge step to tackle the increasing deterioration of our seas and as a result, the planet.

With the ocean covering 70% of the earth and possessing multiple benefits to our society and climate, it is becoming apparent that its value continues to be overlooked.

Professor Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia stated that:

"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."

Enhanced protection measures through an MPA management framework provide both a practical and cost-effective strategy in ocean preservation. MPAs attempt to maximize the effectiveness of conservation, by implementing enforcement measures for protection (such as anti-fishing and habitat destruction). The motivation of their formation was originally to safeguard overexploited fish stocks, but have since developed to help restore oceanic ecosystems as a whole and incorporate constructive interactions with scientific and tourism communities.

These specifically designated sites could play an integral role moving forwards with what will first appear as insurmountable challenges to our oceans. At a glance, it is easy to see why an MPA acts as the blueprint for enforcing marine protection, offering multiple benefits, including:

  • Allowing marine life to replenish;

  • Create safe breeding grounds for threatened or endangered species;

  • Prevent habitat damage;

  • Enhance biodiversity;

  • Aid the restoration of marine ecosystems;

  • Enable scientific research to support ocean conservation; and

  • Promote income and employment through sustainable fishing and tourism.

Such benefits could potentially be even more valuable for the long-term protection of more sensitive ocean ecosystems, such as coral reefs. Significant evidence exhibits that MPAs can increase a coral’s resilience to temperature change, enhance rates of coral recovery and support its fish and other associated species populations.

However, numerous decades of research and location-based analysis have revealed that MPAs proficiency is highly dependent on the effectiveness of its management. With an abundance of failing MPA examples, there is a growing widespread concern about the weaknesses and current gaps in MPA implementation across the scientific community. The University of Tasmania displayed that 59% of MPAs were “not ecologically distinguishable from fished sites” in a study that covered 87 MPAs across 40 countries.

Much debate has attempted to decipher these failures, which has pointed to a lack of funding for many MPAs. Inadequate funding has consequently led to a shortfall in staff members and equipment for management duties. Additionally, minimal local support and insufficiencies in management scope have only escalated the problems in some regions and emphasized the associated lack of MPA efficiency. More obviously and due to the lack of physical boundaries, little can be done to reduce the influence of pollution and climate derived impacts that are sourced from outside of these designated areas. To add to complications, this element also makes it more difficult to prevent illegal fishing and guarantee the protection of species with large migratory patterns.

Taking the above into consideration, some have contested if MPAs provide any significant benefits to the bigger picture at all. Arguments have stated that efforts should be focussing on a whole-system approach instead (e.g. more effort focusing on total oceanic waste reduction instead of only selected areas). Therefore, there should be a real fear that increasing the percentage cover of MPAs will only intensify the current shortfalls already identified within the current setup. Even vaster offshore areas may present greater difficulties in surveillance, enforcement, and monitoring, as well as higher maintenance costs.

However, with an increased political backing and world focus, MPAs might still make a run of it. The proposed UN approach may see an improved and proportional funding proposal, more stringent protection measures, a realigned and consistent management framework and could represent a cohesive global push towards a radical change in ocean protection.

Despite which way you look at it, all still appears up for grabs with the MPA model. With time running out to reverse human-induced damage, the successful future of marine life may have no choice but to heavily rely on such policies in what may well turn out to be a sink or swim strategy for oceanic health. Having learned from our previous failings and with a renewed execution plan, the conceptual borders of MPAs have the potential to become real ocean liberators and for the sake of our seas, they need to be.