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A (Marine) Conservation Carol: A Visit from the Ghost of Conservation Past

A Decade (2011 – 2020) of Marine Conservation in Review


Declared the UN Decade of Biodiversity, the past ten years brought about a lot of change in the field of marine conservation. At the beginning of the decade, the conservation of our oceans lagged behind the efforts to protect land with only about 2% of the ocean designated within a marine protected area (MPA) and even less (< 0.5%) fully protected from extractive use. This meager amount of protection took nearly 20 years to establish, with very few MPAs coming before the 1990s. One of the key achievements of the 'Earth Summit' held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 was an agreement known as the Convention of Biological Diversity which called on countries to “establish a system of protected areas or areas where special measures need to be taken to conserve biological diversity.” Australia was an early leader in marine conservation, having created the Great Barrier Reef Park in the 1970s, and Ecuador designated the Galapagos Islands for protection in 1998. In the 2000’s, the United States and South Africa got into the race by designating Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area in 2009. Yet in 2010, nearly 20 years after the 'Earth Summit', the rate of new marine protection was still very slow with only a handful of large MPAs over 100,000 sq. km. This despite a formal Strategic Plan and a global commitment for “significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” by 2010. Only six of the largest 25 MPAs today were designated prior to 2010.

In many ways, President Bush ushered in a contest between countries to set aside large areas of their ocean estate. At the same time, recognizing a need to spur more action on the part of member parties, the Convention of Biological Diversity adopted the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan, which included what are known as the Aichi Targets. The 11th target was for “10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, …conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes” by 2020. In 2015, this 10% goal was reiterated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) goal 14: Life Below Water. What followed was a fairly regular pattern of large, remote areas of being set aside for protection and to meet nationally promised targets. Brazil, France, Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Chile, US and Mexico all sought to out-do each other and claim the “largest marine protected area” title.

What soon became clear was that in the race to create the largest MPA, the details of  regulating human activities and the stage of establishment varied widely, and were often inconsistent with conservation outcomes. The comparisons between these large MPAs were not ‘apples to apples,’ and some of these MPAs, despite their size, were missing key components of effective protection. Because of this, the global statistics and measures of progress toward conservation goals could not accurately reflect the true amount of protection on the water.

The World Database on Protected Areas is the official repository for all terrestrial and marine protected areas legally designated and reported by nearly all countries around the world. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued guidelines for what should be reported, and countries are asked to confirm that their MPAs are meeting this definition of a marine protected area. However, that did not always happen in practice. For example, some MPAs only prohibit extraction in a small portion, or zone, of their MPA such as Terres Australes (FRA) and the Natural Park of the Coral Sea (NCL). Others, such as Marae Moana in the Cook Islands, are reported to the WDPA as an MPA across the entire territorial and exclusive economic zone, but in truth only protects  small zones within their marine waters. While the goal was an admirable intent to  sustainably manage their entire marine estate, most does not meet the MPA definition, and as of next year portions will be open for seabed mining.

The purpose of the Marine Protection Atlas (MPAtlas.org), created in 2012, was to serve as an independent third-party verification of MPA reporting. Our goal was to parse out the types of marine protected areas and accurately report the true amount of strong protection that was actually in place on the water, or “implemented.” The MPAtlas reports MPAs that do not have regulations in place as “unimplemented,” as well as differentiating between no-take MPAs and those with less strict fishing protections. By doing this, the MPAtlas provided a reliable, accurate reflection of the actual benefits that marine ecosystems and species were experiencing and excluded so-called ‘paper parks.’

Over the course of the last few years, the WDPA has improved its guidelines and reporting with more frequent monthly updates, more accurate reflection of MPAs that meet the definition, and more accurate reporting of no-take area within the multi-use MPAs. Currently the WDPA and MPAtlas are both fairly close in overall reporting of MPA coverage, but the MPAtlas simply sub-reports the level of protection (by fishing regulations) and stage of establishment. As we have reached the end of 2020, countries are once again ready to take stock of their progress to date and look ahead to the next decade. The MPAtlas is gearing up to continue and build upon our efforts to more clearly report the types of protection and their status of establishment. Continue following this blog series to learn more about global progress relative to the 2020 targets and what’s to come for the MPAtlas.