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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: A Snapshot of Marine Conservation in 2020

The turn of the decade has come and gone with many unexpected losses and challenges. Heightened racial tensions, some of the worst wildfires in decades, and COVID-19 didn’t quite make the year for which we were all hoping. In the midst of this, 2020 has also seen consequential outcomes for ocean protection. To recognize a few of the main players in marine conservation this year, we bring you our list of MPA superlatives: a two-part exploration of the ocean’s biggest losses and wins of 2020!

Most Newsworthy MPA: Palau National Marine Sanctuary

Known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Underwater World, Palau solidified legal protection over 80% of its national waters on New Year’s Day. The warm waters of this Pacific archipelago are home to over 700 species of hard and soft coral, 1,300 species of fish, and seven out of the nine species of giant clams in the world. Perhaps one of the most rich and biodiverse coral reefs on the planet, the creation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary is a significant contribution to marine conservation.

Journey to Protection

Protection of the natural environment has been an important part of Palau’s culture for centuries. In 1994, Palau became an independent nation and in the same year passed the Marine Protection Act which included a temporary fishing ban of the bumphead parrotfish. Among other conservation efforts, Palau committed to the Micronesia Challenge in 2006, a pledge of Micronesian states to protect 30% of their marine environment and 20% of their terrestrial environment by 2020. On October 28, 2015, the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act was signed into law, establishing a five-year plan to gradually reduce the intensity of fishing in 80% of Palau’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by 2020, far surpassing both global and Micronesian initiatives.

Current Regulations and Conservation Accomplishments

On January 1, 2020, an amendment reinforcing the protections of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act went into effect, prohibiting all extractive activities, such as mining and fishing, in the 475,077 square kilometer area of Palau’s protected EEZ, securing 80% of the EEZ as a fully protected no-take zone. Local fisheries are permitted to operate in the remaining 20% of the EEZ, deemed the Domestic Fishing Zone, on the western side of Palau. This effort sets Palau apart as a global leader in marine conservation. As of now, only 2.6% of global ocean areas are in implemented and fully protected zones, falling far short of the UN goal to protect 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. As one of the world’s largest MPAs, the Palau National Marine Sanctuary contributes significantly to the preservation of pristine marine environments.

“2020” MPA: Antarctic Southern Ocean

In a year that has earned a reputation for bringing disappointment, perhaps the lack of progress made on protecting the Antarctic seas was the most “on theme” for the year 2020. Recently, members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) came together in its 39th Meeting to discuss protections of the Antarctic seas. The virtual discussions included proposals for three new MPAs in the Southern Ocean: East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Weddell Sea. Negotiations for the creation of a network of MPAs in the Southern Ocean have been ongoing for over a decade, in which time only two MPAs have been implemented. In true 2020 fashion, the three-day conference produced little meaningful change: the 26 member nations were unable to unify to secure the vote. The CCAMLR members failed to designate any of the three proposed MPAs, missing the opportunity to protect an additional 1% of the world’s ocean.

Photo credit: Cristina Mittermeier

East Antarctica

The proposed East Antarctic MPA would have protected 970,000 square kilometers of critical coastal habitat for seals, toothfish, penguins, and the backbone of the ecosystem in the Antarctic: krill. Limited commercial fishing for Antarctic krill and Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish is currently permitted. The proposed regulations would help preserve the region’s unique biodiversity by creating highly protected toothfish and krill no-take zones and sustainable fishing zones within the MPA.

Antarctic Peninsula

Protection for the 670,000 square kilometer area of the Antarctic Peninsula would build the resilience of one of the fastest warming ocean regions in the world. Melting sea ice and concentrated krill fishing pose critical threats to food webs and wildlife habitat for krill, whales, seals, and penguins. The proposed MPA would include a General Protection Zone, prohibiting krill fishing, and a sustainable Krill Fishing Zone, permitting commercial fishing by CCAMLR members under the Commission’s conservation measures.

 Weddell Sea

Considerations for protection of Weddell Sea’s 2.2 million square kilometers of remote ocean and sea ice sought to safeguard the region’s rich, biodiverse species such as petrels, seals, penguins, whales and endemic benthic species, including cold water corals and glass sponges. This marine reserve would serve to preserve the pristine sea ice and seafloor ecosystems that support these unique species. The MPA would have included a General Protection Zone closed to commercial fishing, a Fishing Research Zone with clearly defined research activities and a scientific reference area that is to remain unfished, and a Special Protection Zone that prohibits all fishing.

Although the CCAMLR meeting concluded without approving these protections this year, as a consolation prize, the Commission agreed to precautionary toothfish catch limits for all fisheries in the area and signed a pledge declaring the urgent need for an MPA network in the Southern Ocean, sparking hope for future progress. As we look forward to 2021, we hope delegates will gather the support needed to secure stronger marine protections in Antarctic waters.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our MPA Superlatives series!