Any way you count it, the goal of 10% ocean protection by 2020, driven by the CBD’s Aichi Target 11, hasn’t been met, scientists said.

“We were close, but we are still not there,” Carlos Gaymer, a marine biologist at the Catholic University of the North in Coquimbo, Chile, told Mongabay. “There are so many economic and political interests for using the ocean that it’s difficult.”

Even so, Gaymer said he is still optimistic on ocean conservation, as public awareness of the issue has grown along with the amount of ocean under protection.

The area covered by MPAs has more than doubled since 2010, to cover more than 27 million square kilometers in 2020, according to Protected Planet. From vast swaths of the Pacific Ocean around the Cook Islands, to sanctuaries surrounding Ecuador’s biologically crucial Galápagos Islands, more than 17,000 MPAs have sprung up globally.

Conservationists are now pressing for the adoption of a more ambitious new goal at the next CBD meeting: protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030. The meeting, slated for this past October, was postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic.

That’s a big ask, but the science indicates it’s necessary to preserve ocean health, according to Karan from Pew. “In terms of straight up spatial area, I am reasonably optimistic it could be achieved in this time frame,” she said. “There is a lot of momentum around the 2030 target.”

A school of Hawaiian squirrelfish (Sargocentron xantherythrum) swim in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006. Image by James Watt/USFWS via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

More fish in the sea

MPA proponents say one of the key benefits of expanding and improving protected areas is augmenting fisheries.

Increasing the size of the global MPA network by just 5% could improve future fish catches by at least 20%, according to a study published online in October in the journal PNAS. This expansion would generate more than 9 million metric tons of additional food annually, compared to a business-as-usual scenario with no additional protection, the researchers found.

In other words, protecting more of the ocean now means more food for a hungry planet in the long term. “Our work demonstrates that a global network of MPAs designed to improve fisheries productivity can substantially increase future catch, enabling synergistic conservation and food provisioning,” the researchers wrote.

The study underscores a central problem for the development of MPAs. Fishers and members of other maritime industries often oppose creating new MPAs for fear of jeopardizing their livelihoods. In the U.S., for instance, the fishing industry came out in November strongly opposing a proposal to adopt a national 30% goal.

Breaking down this dichotomy is crucial for conservation projects to succeed, MPA proponents said.

“The problem with fishing is the tragedy of the commons idea — everyone rushes to catch as much fish as possible so the other guys don’t get it,” said John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“MPAs not only protect and restore those fisheries, but they give us a sense of what things are supposed to look like. They’re like a window into the past, which is astounding, even for scientists like us,” Bruno said.

A Galápagos brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis urinator). Scientists say marine protected areas like this one surrounding Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands are crucial for species preservation. Image by Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ecological representation and ‘paper parks’

However, even proponents of MPAs acknowledge they are not always as effective as they could be. Along with the goal of expanding MPAs, the current U.N. target calls for them to be well protected and well connected.

“In many cases, we have no idea whether that’s really happening,” said Gaymer, the Chilean marine biologist.

The vast majority of new, large protected areas are concentrated around remote, unpopulated areas and islands, he said, whereas the percentage of MPAs covering populated coastal areas is far lower. Moreover, he said, the CBD target calls for protected areas to be broadly representative of a country’s ocean ecosystems.

“That’s where Chile has the first challenge — reaching ecological representativity,” Gaymer said. His home country greatly expanded protections in the past decade and now has 41% of its waters designated as MPAs, according to the Marine Protection Atlas.

Then there’s the question of quality. Designating a swath of ocean as a protected area isn’t terribly difficult for countries to do, Bruno said. Far harder and more expensive is making sure the MPA is actually monitored, enforced and effective in preserving marine life, he added.

There’s a term for an MPA with no real enforcement: a paper park. “It drives scientists crazy,” Bruno told Mongabay. He and some other scientists are concerned over how CBD goals impact government and NGO priorities. He said they can lead to a race to declare new protected areas, “rather than the hard work” of maintaining effective MPAs: buying boats, paying for salaries so they can patrol and monitor the area to ensure it actually protects marine life and ecosystems.

“It’s not glamorous and we don’t see headlines in the New York Times from doing that. But it’s the work that has to be done to see some benefit,” he said.

Globally, only two large MPAs are effectively administrated, Gaymer said: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia and Papahānaumokuākea in Hawaiʻi.

“All the rest are finishing or starting their process of management planning,” he said. “Some haven’t even started. We still have a long way to go.”

And despite its strict protections, the Great Barrier Reef park is virtually defenseless against climate change-induced marine heat waves that have killed much of its famed coral in recent years.

Healthy coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Image by Jonas Gratzer for Mongabay.

Toward protecting the high seas

While countries working to meet the goal of 10% marine protection are mostly focused on their exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometers, from the shoreline, two-thirds of the world’s oceans aren’t controlled by national governments.

These areas, the high seas, account for 90% of available habitat for life on Earth, and up to $16 billion in annual fisheries catch, according to an article in the journal Nature. Only 0.5% of high-seas waters are protected from commercial exploitation.

Establishing protected areas on the high seas is tougher logistically; they’re basically a legal no man’s land. But negotiations to establish a new legal process to do so were underway at the U.N. before the pandemic hit. “We are hoping those negotiations can come back on track in 2021,” Karan said.

If so, hitting the 10% target, or even 30%, could get much easier.

Big Bunsby Marine Park in British Columbia, Canada, is pictured in 2014. Image by Kiwican via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Banner image: A juvenile Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi), an endangered species, on a reef in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai‘i. The marine protected area is the largest in North America; some scientists say it’s an example of the benefits an MPA designation can provide for at-risk species. Image by Mark Sullivan/NOAA via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Chris Arsenault is a professor of journalism at Conestoga College in Canada. He has been a long-time foreign correspondent covering resource and environmental issues with the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brazil and Italy, and with Al Jazeera in Qatar. Twitter: @chrisarsenaul


Cabral, R. B., Bradley, D., Mayorga, J., Goodell, W., Friedlander, A. M., Sala, E., … Gaines, S. D. (2020). A global network of marine protected areas for food. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(45), 28134-28139. doi:10.1073/pnas.2000174117

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