How safe are our Marine Protected Areas? (A marine debris team collects fishing nets that have been abandoned in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument © NOAA)

How safe are our Marine Protected Areas?

The deadline for global action on protecting the oceans is fast approaching. Will we hit the 2020 target?

The United Nations set a target of safeguarding 10 per cent of the seas from humanity’s impacts, such as fishing and drilling for oil and gas, by 2020. So far, the numbers look promising. The Protected Planet website lists more than 15,000 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) covering roughly seven per cent of the oceans, up 10-fold since 2000.

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Much of that growth comes down to several enormous MPAs including the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Originally set up by George W Bush and expanded by Barack Obama, it includes remote coral reefs and islands stretching northwest from Hawaii and covers 1.5 million square kilometres, equal to the area of Spain and France put together. Other pledges include protecting a quarter of Brazilian waters and making 10 per cent of Belize’s waters completely off limits to fishing.

EHT black hole photo could be boom or bust for Einstein © Getty Images

Disputed figures

It’s too soon to start celebrating though: not everyone agrees that the 10 per cent target is within reach. “A lot of those areas have only been proposed,” says Callum Roberts, professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York. An alternative assessment counting only legally implemented MPAs reveals a global area of four per cent. Or two per cent if it includes only sites that are highly protected from fishing.

Roberts is especially critical of countries, including the UK, which claim their waters are well-protected but where there’s little active management. “We’ve got essentially a fake network of MPAs,” he says.

The least-protected parts of the oceans are the high seas, distant reaches far from shore that make up roughly half the planet’s surface and are vital for providing food and regulating the climate. Effectively a lawless realm that no countries can claim, the high seas have been largely neglected when it comes to conservation. But that could soon change.

By 2020, the United Nations also plans to create a new global treaty for the high seas making it easier to set up conservation zones that will protect migrating sea turtles, whales, tuna and sharks, not to mention the wonders of the deep sea. Negotiations are underway and the outcome will be vital if we’re ever to reach the more ambitious target of 30 per cent ocean protection, as supported by many scientists including Roberts.

“What happens in the high seas is fundamental to the processes that make this planet habitable for all of us.”

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