Protection of the Seas and Oceans

Protection of the Seas and Oceans

Nature Needs Half is as much about waters and oceans as it is about land. Mounting issues and challenges with the earth’s marine areas and resources make it ever more important that we have the right vision and call for action that is achievable, and with standards that foster true ecosystem resilience. This is confirmed by many authoritative studies, and recently the International Programme on the State of the Oceans (IPSO) issued a report that clarified in no uncertain terms that multiple stresses on marine environments are converging, and action is needed.

Protection of seascapes and critical marine areas has always lagged considerably behind terrestrial conservation efforts. A major reason is that most of the oceans are beyond any country’s jurisdiction and have traditionally formed part of the global commons – no one owns them. Their issues are harder to grasp, too, simply because they are remote, with relatively little human interaction. As a result, it is difficult to reverse the persistent perception that oceans are an infinite resource. Research is also vastly more expensive in marine environments than on land, which complicates the process of acquiring the data necessary for decision making.

It is clear, though, that providing strong protections for marine environments is effective. Creating a marine reserve, in essence a “no-take” zone in most countries, provides immediate benefits by protecting habitat, while also allowing fisheries to rebuild, often quite rapidly. Marine reserves consistently have higher diversity, more individuals within species as well as larger individuals than areas outside the reserve, and they can also have a beneficial spillover effect, increasing fish stocks at the margins of the reserve, thus benefiting the fishing industry. Networks of marine reserves and other marine protected areas can also increase our oceans resiliency in the face of environmental stress, improving their chances of resisting or recovering from outside pressures. (Sherman et al. 2010, Laffoley 2008)

Unfortunately, to date we have protected less than 1.5% of our planet’s marine environments (relative to over 13 percent for terrestrial environments), of which only a tiny fraction are strictly protected no-take zones. We are therefore a very long way from achieving adequate protection of our oceans – we have to scale up our marine conservation efforts dramatically, and we have to do it quickly. Nature Needs Half — which could be seen as a mix of strictly protected reserves and other forms of marine protected areas that allow for fishing, recreational and indigenous uses — is thus a timely and realistic framework for action.

Is there progress? The 2012 target for marine protection under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was 10 percent of the world’s oceans. In light of the fact that the global community will clearly fail to meet this target (or even come close to meeting it) the Parties at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the CBD in Nagoya, Japan in October of 2010 opted to keep the target at 10 percent until 2020 rather than raise it further. Maintaining the target at 10 percent was in essence a political decision, reflecting what Parties thought was realistically feasible over the next 10 years, rather than an assessment of what was actually needed from a biological standpoint.

In fact, most marine biologists believe the 10 percent target is far too low, especially as it only calls for marine protected areas generically, which are often managed more as multiple use zones and do not always clearly prioritize biodiversity conservation. The target also does not in fact require creation of any strictly protected marine reserves. Thus, many NGOs and foundations called for higher 2020 marine targets in Nagoya, mostly in the 15-20 percent range.

Some NGOs have pointed out that much higher levels of protection are ultimately needed to ensure the protection of our oceans. In 2006, Greenpeace called for setting aside 40% of the planet’s oceans in large-scale reserves where extractive and dumping activities would be prohibited.

An increase in large-scale marine conservation around the world provides some hope for ocean conservation. Until the last 10-15 years, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Antarctica stood out as the most prominent examples of large scale marine conservation. But that has begun to change. A few examples:

* Australia has since declared several other large marine reserves and has undertaken a national process that will add hundreds of thousands of square kilometers to their national network, including providing interim protection for the Coral Sea, an area over 900,000 square kilometers east of the Great Barrier Reef.

* The Republic of Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area covers over 400,000 square kilometers in the Pacific.

* The Federated States of Micronesia has committed to protect 30 percent of their near shore marine resources (about 5 percent of the entire Pacific Ocean).

* Protection of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean (though not without substantial controversy), has made it the largest marine protected area in the world at 544,000 km2.

* The Sala y Gómez Marine Park in Chile recently added 150,000 km2.

* The Government of Bermuda is leading an initiative to generate protections under international law for the Sargasso Sea, an area extending over approximately 5 million square kilometers.

* The United States has also recently established several very large-scale marine protected areas, including the Papahānaumokuākea, Marianas Trench, Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. has also included a number of marine areas in wilderness designations made pursuant to the Wilderness Act of 1964, though the wilderness characteristics of these marine areas are yet to be specifically addressed in formal management guidelines. At WILD9 (the 9th World Wilderness Congress) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also announced its intent to study the potential for marine wilderness designations.

In addition to maintaining this momentum, a critical challenge will be to extend this progress to the high seas, where governance mechanisms remain weak and fragmented and where numerous plans and agreements, both at the regional and at the global level remain unimplemented. Some organizations have called for a new agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea focused on conservation to provide an overarching framework for global oceans protection including on the high seas. Proposals for such an agreement are being advanced in the lead up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) in Brazil in June of 2012.

1 Comment

  1. *The U.S. has also included a number of marine areas in wilderness designations made pursuant to the Wilderness Act of 1964*
    Preserving Drakes Estero as the 1st Marine Wilderness on the US West Coast is being THREATENED by intense political pressure from CA Senator Dianne Feinstein – to force DOI Secretary Salazar to extend
    commercial shellfish aquaculture in Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, CA. Wealthy and influential allies of Drakes Bay Oyster Company continually pound media and legislators with distorted attacks on scientists and wilderness advocates. Exploiting widespread ignorance of the complex, cumulative impacts from intensifying cultivation of non-native Pacific oysters on keystone species like eelgrass, harbor seal pupping zones, and proliferation of marine pests like didemnum (aka marine vomit), the operation’s legacy of violations is flipped into ‘sustainable stewardship’ by ‘a luminary of local organic agriculture’.
    DBOC’s current permit expires in November2012. If a new permit is issued, 50 years of environmental law, the National Park Service’s natural resource protection policies, and Drakes Estero’s protection as wilderness will be nullified.
    Tell Senator Feinstein that threatening marine sanctuary resources is NOT the way to support sustainable business interests. Urge Secretary Salazar to uphold the 40-year promise to save Drakes Estero Marine Wilderness. Tell DBOC to comply with the law, keep its agreements, stop deceptive media tactics, and hostile use of public property. Learn more at:


  1. October 23 is Half-Earth Day: Respecting Nature by Protecting Half the Earth’s Terrestrial and Ocean Area – The Environmental Optimist - […] around the world to push toward protecting half the Earth’s terrestrial area and at least 40% of the oceans…

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