- Under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 168 signatory countries committed to the creation of marine protected areas encompassing 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020.
- Given that just over two percent of the sea currently enjoys some sort of protected status, 10 percent is still a politically ambitious goal, 24 years after it was first adopted.
- But University of York researchers say that even that is not enough to ensure the health of the ocean ecosystem and all of the services it provides to humanity.
Under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 168 signatory countries committed to the creation of marine protected areas encompassing 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020.
Given that just over two percent of the sea currently enjoys some sort of protected status, 10 percent is still a politically ambitious goal, 24 years after it was first adopted.
But University of York scientists Callum Roberts and Dr. Bethan O’Leary say that even that is not enough to ensure the health of the ocean ecosystem and all of the services it provides to humanity. The researchers found that 30 percent of the Earth’s oceans must be protected in order to preserve marine biodiversity, fisheries productivity, and all of the economic and cultural benefits we derive from the sea.
“While at first glance the figures we have presented seem large, they are not surprising,” Dr. O’Leary said in a statement. “Wildlife and habitats evolved in the absence of human industrial exploitation so it is only to be expected that intensively exploiting a large fraction of the oceans is not a viable option in the long term.”
Roberts and O’Leary, who have published their results in the journal Conservation Letters, reviewed 144 studies that looked at how much ocean should be made into marine protected areas in order to achieve some particular management goal, such as protecting biodiversity, ensuring population connectivity among marine protected areas, or avoiding fisheries and population collapse.
The researchers found that there was something of a consensus around the idea that only the most ambitious ocean conservation targets could achieve these goals. More than half the studies Roberts and O’Leary examined found that protecting 30 percent or more of the area under consideration was critical to achieving the proposed conservation goal. Just three percent of the studies found that the goal could be met by protecting 10 percent of the area.
“What we’ve done is to extrapolate from their results, to blend the results for a whole variety of different approaches that people have taken, and to come up with a big-picture figure,” Roberts said in a statement. “The answer isn’t a few percent of the sea, which is what we have protected right now. It’s a few tens of percent of the sea.”
2015 was a record year for the creation of marine protected areas, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, with more than 2.5 million square kilometers (about 965,000 square miles) of ocean set aside in protected areas — more than in any other year in history. New marine reserves were declared in the Pitcairn Islands, Easter Island, the Kermadecs of New Zealand, and Palau.
Despite that progress, only 2.18 percent of the world’s oceans have been fully protected as of today. That leaves 8.82 percent of the world’s oceans need to be set aside in the next four years if we’re to meet the 2020 goal committed to in the Convention on Biological Diversity — which, Roberts added, should not be regarded as the endpoint for effective ocean management.
“There’s been huge interest and controversy over how much of the sea we really need to protect in order to safeguard life there and the benefits it provides to humanity,” he said. “The science says we should raise our ambitions and protect something in the range of 30 to 40 percent of the oceans from exploitation and harm.”
- O’Leary, B. C., Winther‐Janson, M., Bainbridge, J. M., Aitken, J., Hawkins, J. P., & Roberts, C. M. (2016). Effective targets for ocean protection. Conservation Letters. doi:10.1111/conl.12247