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To save the oceans, we need MPAs that emphasize actual protection of marine ecosystems (commentary)

  • Saving the ocean is possible but it requires getting serious about stopping its destruction, not everywhere, but especially in designated places called marine protected areas, a new op-ed argues.
  • But for MPAs to work, “protected” has to mean what it says. There should be no halfway measures, no empty promises, no conservation that happens only on paper.
  • There have been several opportunities in recent months to take action on such measures, including at the current UN Environment Assembly, which ends on March 2.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

If you are pessimistic about the state of our planet, let me surprise you with this: It is perfectly possible to rebuild life in our ocean to avoid ecological disaster. There is a way to make the ocean healthy again for the creatures that live in it and the humans who depend on them – which is, actually, all of humanity.

It turns out you can eat your fish and have them, too.

This is not a magical solution, but it is like a miracle. Saving the ocean is possible, but it requires getting serious about stopping its destruction. Not everywhere, but in designated places called marine protected areas (MPAs).

But here is the catch: “Protected” has to mean what it says. This means strict rules. No halfway measures, no empty promises, no conservation only on paper. No trawlers ravaging the ocean floor. No long lines with millions of hooks emptying the ocean of target species and killing tons of helpless bycatch. No mining, oil and gas prospecting, dredging, dumping or other damaging activities. Just this: The resolute willingness of humans to stay away from certain waters to let them heal, rebound, and help regenerate the rest of the ocean.

Looking like an orange sponge, a frogfish rests off Isla Manuelita at Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica. Frogfish are ambush predators, nabbing the small fish that swim in front of them in a fraction of a second. Photograph by Enric Sala/National Geographic Pristine Seas.

If we do that permanently, the healing will happen. And hungry humans will benefit, because no fishing here doesn’t mean no fishing there. When marine protected areas are left to themselves, fish and other creatures bounce back and grow larger. We know that the larger female fish produce a disproportionately larger number of babies which, together with the spillover of adult fish, help to replenish surrounding areas. Fishing boats working outside the MPAs start catching more fish.  And when the fish come back, the divers come in, creating new jobs and economic opportunities.

I know this happens, because I’ve seen it. And it happens with stunning speed. Cabo Pulmo in the Gulf of California, Mexico, went from underwater desert to pristine in only 10 years, as residents banded together to create a no-take marine park. They stood firm against skeptics and shortsighted critics and reaped the reward. Their village became a tourism and diving mecca and won a global reputation. In the otherwise overfished Gulf of California, the waters off Cabo Pulmo saw an astounding increase in biomass — 463% between 1999 and 2009. The 71-square-kilometer park has been hailed as the world’s “most robust marine reserve,” with tons of new fish produced every year.

How well do marine protected areas work? Mongabay examined the evidence.

Pennant coralfish via Max Pixel.

Cabo Pulmo is not alone. I have seen this miracle under the sea in many places around the world, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, from small to large MPAs. On average, the biomass of fish increases 6 times in no-take MPAs in less than a decade, and the more fish inside the MPAs, the more benefits for people. These MPAs are savings accounts that grow with compound interest and produce returns we can enjoy, as opposed to the rest of the ocean, which is like a checking account where everybody withdraws but nobody makes a deposit.

However, less than 3% of the global ocean is highly protected now, and bottom trawlers and legal and rogue fishing operations alike are vacuuming up fish like there’s no tomorrow. There will be no tomorrow for the ocean if it continues like this. Worldwide demand for seafood — the last wild food, hunted down with ruthless efficiency, rather than responsibly harvested save for a few exceptions — is relentless.

Marine protected areas are a demonstrably good idea, but good ideas are no good without execution. We don’t need paper parks that only make governments look good but don’t protect against any threat in the real world. We cannot applaud empty statements any longer.

See related: Four new MPAs in Maluku boost Indonesia’s bid to protect its seas

Four new marine protected areas in North Maluku province of Indonesia are expected to benefit the local fisheries and support food security. Image by Mahmud Ichi/Mongabay-Indonesia.

The time to act is now. Fortunately, there have been several key moments in recent months when world leaders of government, business and civil society have had the opportunity to make ambitious commitments to protect our ocean.

It kicked off with the One Ocean Summit in France last month, where countries signed on to the Brest Commitments for the Ocean, focused on protecting biodiversity, stopping illegal fishing, and ending plastic pollution. It continues with the United Nations Environment Assembly which ends tomorrow, March 2, when plastics pollution will take the spotlight.

Let’s hope these leaders take these critical opportunities to act on their pacts and pledges. If we do this right, the ocean will repay us many times over.

Enric Sala is an Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, the founder of Pristine Seas, and the recipient of this year’s Prince Albert I Grand Medal for his work to protect the ocean. 

See an extended conversation with Sala here at Mongabay: ‘Tamper with nature, and everyone suffers’: Q&A with ecologist Enric Sala

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We discuss what seashells can tell us about the state of the world’s oceans, and we hear about the challenges facing the Philippines’ marine protected area system. Listen here:

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