Skip to content

How the Pandemic Impacted Ocean Conservation in 2020 and Why We Still Have Hope


Before the year began, ocean advocates deemed 2020 the ‘ocean super year’ due to the number of planned meetings, conferences, decisions and political deadlines instrumental to marine conservation and fighting climate change throughout the year.  We eagerly anticipated a year of engaging debates and discussions, renewed commitment to protecting and restoring healthy oceans, and tangible decisions and actions that accelerate global progress toward conservation goals.

Pandemic limited global collaboration

The 2020 schedule for ocean experts was fully booked. The final negotiations of the UN BBNJ treaty, an international legally binding treaty describing the sustainable regulation and conservation of international waters, were scheduled to take place in New York in March. In June, in Lisbon, Portugal, the UN Ocean Conference was envisioned to assess the implementation of and support continued progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 14, ‘Life Below Water.’ During the same month, the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which is the world’s largest conservation event known for rich debates and resolutions, was intended to bring together scientists, conservationists, and governments in Marseille. In October, the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was meant to be held in Kunming, China, where the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework was expected to be adopted, including a 30×30 target to safeguard 30% of global ocean area by 2030 through a network of highly protected marine areas.

And that’s only a sampling of the events planned for 2020. It seemed like a year where all eyes would be on the ocean. But before we knew it, COVID-19 began to rapidly spread across the globe, and everything came to a screeching halt. The risks associated with travel and large gatherings forced these important meetings and conferences to be delayed or canceled. Consequently, the adoption of important ocean conservation frameworks and actions has yet to occur, and the future of marine ecosystems and species still hangs in limbo.

Falling short of international conservation goals

In addition, 2020 marked key deadlines for the CBD Aichi Targets (Target 11) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) target 14.5, both of which included a target of 10% ocean area protected in marine protected areas. Conservation advocates have had their eyes on global, regional, and national metrics in hopes of seeing this benchmark met and surpassed as an interim goal toward protecting a healthy ocean. However, when 2020 ended, only 6.4% of global ocean area was protected at all. Perhaps more importantly, only 2.6% of the global ocean is contained within highly or fully protected areas that restrict extractive and destructive activities (see the latest global and country-level marine protection information online at mpatlas.org).

Figure: Dial progress chart with rate MPA protection levels up to 10%.

Nevertheless, we made positive strides

While 2020 fell short of expectations (to say the least), as we start 2021, we deserve to celebrate the ways in which we overcame this year’s obstacles. Months of quarantine taught us to get creative and re-think conventional approaches and norms. We re-examined our relationships with each other and with nature with more intention, spending more time outdoors and recognizing the intimate relationship between environmental health and human health.  

Moreover, even without a new set of officially adopted goals from the CBD or other anticipated commitments in 2020, several ocean champions emerged this year. For example, Palau designated 80% of its exclusive economic zone as a marine protected area that entirely prohibits extractive activity, leaving the remaining 20% open only to locally-managed fisheries for food security. In Brazil, Abrolhos Marine National Park was awarded a silver-level Blue Park Award, specifically commending the park’s strong regulations that protect tropical coral reefs and consistent engagement with the local community. Abrolhos joined 16 existing Blue Parks in a network of outstanding protected areas that safeguard life at sea.

Map of global marine protection coverage from https://mpatlas.org

At Marine Conservation Institute, the MPAtlas team has spent the past year re-creating our web interface at MPAtlas.org to create a more user-friendly experience with more detailed information and more ways to visualize the data. Right now, the Marine Protection Atlas categorizes MPAs based on their fishing protection level and their stage of establishment. Fishing protection level refers to the fishing restrictions in an MPA, where no-take or nearly no-take areas are considered highly protected and areas with weaker regulations are considered less protected. While the current MPAtlas offers a more comprehensive look at marine protections, recent studies suggest that fishing regulations alone are not enough to secure conservation for sensitive and important ecosystems. As such, we are actively working to create a whole new marine protected area assessment repository as part of a project to further hone and standardize MPA terminology and measurement of progress. We have actively worked with a team of researchers and conservationists, led by Oregon State University, to develop The MPA Guide, a science-based system for effective MPA planning that measures and predicts conservation outcomes of MPAs based on their stage of establishment and level of protection. The MPA Guide refines existing language and captures a shared vision to describe MPAs and the conservation outcomes they provide. Implementing the MPA Guide framework along with the Regulations Based Classification System (classifympas.org) into the MPAtlas’ online tools will greatly improve our understanding of current global marine protection, giving us an even more detailed look at what is happening on the water.

2021 brings renewed hope

Recent vaccine development brings a promise that the end of the pandemic may be in sight, and that means we may be able to pick up where we left off and begin holding meetings that will drive progress. The United Nations has proclaimed 2021-2030 a ‘Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Developmentto ‘support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health and unify ocean stakeholders worldwide to ensure that ocean science helps countries achieve sustainable development of the Ocean.’ For conservation advocates living in the United States, it is quite possible that the most exciting event of 2020 was the election of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. In the words of Marine Conservation Institute president, Dr. Lance Morgan, “MPA efforts flat lined under the Trump Administration – the incoming Biden administration is likely to breathe new life into marine monuments, sanctuaries and refuges.”

At Marine Conservation Institute, we will continue to advocate for and track global marine conservation and the implementation of fully / highly protected, well-managed MPAs. The challenges of 2020 have only increased our desire to mend the relationship between humans and nature and fight urgently to protect the planet and ourselves. We anticipate exciting progress in 2021. We hope you will continue reading this blog series to learn more about our future in Part 3.