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Ocean protections drift behind those on land, but science can help

  • A new paper reports only 3.6 percent of oceans are protected, but the rate of protection is increasing.
  • The authors describe different types of marine protected areas and argue those without any fishing are most effective.
  • The paper lists several ways policymakers can create robust reserves, like involving ocean users early in planning.

A hodgepodge of laws protects roughly 15 percent of Earth’s land, but safeguards for the ocean lag behind. Today, laws shelter a meager 3.6 percent of the planet’s liquid blue surface. But a recent position paper in Science says lawmakers are beginning to close the gap.

Marine protected areas have mushroomed in the past decade to curb overfishing and hunting, the report notes. If global leaders embrace conservation science, the authors claim policymakers can further accelerate the ocean’s recovery.

International leaders are advancing toward 10 percent global ocean protection by 2020, a goal set in 2010 by the Convention on Biological Diversity. Most recently, Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Jr., signed a law on Oct. 28 fully protecting 83 percent of the nation’s marine territory. The measure catapults the Pacific island country to first place globally for its fraction of national waters strongly or fully protected.

Similar initiatives elsewhere have created more reserves, enabling scientists to study which approaches are best for rejuvenating wild populations.

A kelp forest off the California Coast, where pockets of full protection alternate with   zones allowing limited fishing. Photo by Greg Asner.
A kelp forest off the California Coast, where pockets of full protection alternate with zones allowing limited fishing. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner of

“There are as many flavors of marine protected areas as there are of ice cream,” said lead author Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist at Oregon State University and former administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lubchenco and Kirsten Grorud-Colvert of Oregon State University reviewed the existing literature on marine protected areas. They compiled a list of traits that make reserves successful and a second list translating those lessons into policy guidelines.

The authors divided marine protected areas into three classifications: lightly protected zones allowing significant commercial fishing; strongly protected zones allowing non-commercial fishing; and fully protected zones banning fishing. The report extols “fully protected” zones because they support significantly more life, measured by biomass, than “lightly protected” zones. Just 1.8 percent of the world’s oceans are strongly or fully protected, the paper notes.

Lubchenco said policymakers may not understand the scientific distinctions between those types of protection, but there’s an ocean of difference. In a fully protected zone, for instance, a 40-centimeter-long coral trout can grow to 60 centimeters, boosting its spray of beadlike eggs from 350,000 to 3 million.

A graph of coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus) productivity associated with size. Graphic from Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.
A graph of coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus) productivity associated with size. Graphic from Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.

“When you protect these areas, you get increased social, economic, and environmental benefits,” Lubchenco told Mongabay. She noted that both developed and developing countries reap these benefits. Chile, the United Kingdom, and the United States now rank second through fourth for percent of marine area strongly or fully protected, behind Palau.

The report of accelerated protection pleasantly surprised Mark Carr, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He blamed lagging ocean conservation on overtaxed coastal areas and unsupervised open oceans.

The paper addresses these challenges. Protected zones should form a connected chain to accommodate fish migrations and invigorate populations that spill into fishing zones, the authors maintain. “Bottom-up” planning that engages ocean users early in the process can benefit fishing and tourism economies. Though climate change also plagues reserves, the paper states that protected areas increase genetic diversity and resilience in the face of ecological challenges.

The call for cooperation resonated with Dan Laffoley, an IUCN principal advisor on marine science. “The scale of the issue is no longer in anyone’s eyes ‘us and them’ …we are all in this together,” he told Mongabay.

Green humphead parrotfish off Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Green humphead parrotfish off Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rod Moore, executive director of the U.S. West Coast Seafood Processors Association in Portland, Oregon, also supported cooperation. But he warned against arbitrary top-down goals like a 10 percent global protection target, which he said encourages one-upmanship among politicians. “It’s like an auction,” Moore said. “‘I’ll raise you ten.’”

Carr acknowledges that global targets have political value, but he also says reserves must be thoughtfully located and that plans must involve local marine users to succeed. For example, Carr witnessed how bottom-up planning catalyzed the success of California’s network of marine protected areas. Now he travels internationally sharing California’s approach. “The extent to which science informed what policy did is exceptional, compared to the norm,” he said. “Everyone is looking at California as a model.”

Seven scientific findings from marine protected areas

  1. Fully protected areas almost always achieve the goal of more species in greater numbers and larger sizes.
  2. Reserves linked together beyond coastal waters protect animals moving from one habitat to another.
  3. Linked reserves can support species enough to allow fishing outside protected zones.
  4. Involving marine users—like fishers—leads to plans that advance conservation and fisheries
  5. Reserves make ecosystems more resilient in facing challenges like climate change
  6. Smart planning minimizes unnecessary costs later and may even increase a zone’s ultimate economic value
  7. Thoughtful approaches to fishing, energy generation, and other marine uses can help protect the ocean beyond reserves

Six policy recommendations

  1. Combine top-down and bottom-up approaches in ocean protection
  2. Involve marine users in all planning stages
  3. Create transition phases and incentives that encourage marine users to protect reserves, (e.g., turn reserves into a business with investors and shareholders)
  4. Use new technologies like satellite tracking to identify illegal fishers
  5. Complement reserves with effective policies to address challenges like ocean acidification and climate change
  6. Monitor progress and create contingency plans for unexpected changes


Lubchenco, Jane, and Kirsten Grorud-Colvert. “Making waves: The science and politics of ocean protection.” Science 350.6259 (2015): 382-383.

Natalie Jacewicz is a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Other Mongabay stories produced by UCSC students can be found here

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