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The Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES)

Photo: John Weller

For 20 years (since Norse 1993)1, the world has known that the living oceans essential to human survival and prosperity are in deep trouble as the growing human population demands much more while we’re dramatically reducing the oceans’ capacity to sustain us. On land, the world has taken the very wise step of securing strategically vital food crops in facilities such as the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, in the Arctic Ocean. But very few marine species can be maintained outside their habitats; for the vast majority, in their habitats is the only way to conserve them at present. Moreover, until now there has been no systematic program to save the world’s marine species from worsening conditions. The fate of our species could hinge on our capacity to recover life in our world’s largest life support system, our oceans. Humankind needs a comprehensive, foolproof, quickly assembled, cost-effective system to safeguard life in the sea. On October 22, at the Third International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Marseille, France, Marine Conservation Institute President Lance Morgan offered one to the world. It is called the Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES). Protecting species in their ecosystems is the most robust way to maintain the world’s diversity, abundance and resilience because they feed and reproduce themselves without needing assistance from us. There are now thousands of marine protected areas, totaling 3% of the oceans.2 But weak protection confers little or no conservation benefit 3 ; only strongly protected areas demonstrably increase diversity and abundance marine life.4 Most marine protected areas are really “paper parks” offering little meaningful protection. Moreover, their geographic coverage is very uneven; in many regions, key ecosystems have no protection. Only 1% of the ocean is now free from fishing and other extractive uses (, just 1/20th-1/30ththe area marine biologists are urging the world to protect. Strong, effective protected areas are being created too slowly (Figure 1) to avert profound changes in global systems, jeopardizing great numbers of humans. So far, governments, international governmental organizations and NGOs have been inadequate to the task of saving marine life. The world needs a much more effective, faster solution that aligns the interests of the public and private sectors, now and in the future. Marine Conservation Institute now offers a solution.

Figure 1. Global rate of marine protected area designation

Our Solution: The Global Ocean Refuge System

Until now, states, countries and international governmental organizations have not been up to the task of conserving biodiversity and abundance. To remedy this as threats increase, Marine Conservation Institute has initiated the Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES, pronounced glôr-ees), a new, strategic way to strongly safeguard the world’s marine ecosystems. Global Ocean Refuges are ecosystems that best serve as safe havens for the diversity of marine life. GLORES is designed to catalyze strong protection for at least 20% of the ecosystems in each marine biogeographic region, enough to save almost all marine species from extinction.

GLORES goes beyond existing efforts by 1) using a scientifically sound biogeographic framework for protecting ecosystems; 2) establishing clear, transparent criteria for the best locations, strong protection, effective management and credible enforcement to save species and their habitats from preventable harm; 3) fostering improved cooperation among nongovernmental advocacy organizations to achieve GLORES goals; and 4) incentivizing competition among countries and international governmental organizations for the prestige and economic benefits of earning Global Ocean Refuge status for the best existing and new marine protected areas.

While GLORES seems to be a paradigm shift in marine conservation, it actually builds on what the marine conservation community has learned since its origin in the 1970s. GLORES will not replace NGOs’ existing efforts to protect individual places; it will facilitate their success, thereby catalyzing the system change in the sea we all want. Using the latest science, powerful new technologies and novel ways of influencing governance, GLORES will pave the way for enduring ocean stewardship on a global scale, and therefore, for human survival.

How GLORES Will Work In a time of increasing demand for fish, oil and minerals, small victories are unlikely to recover the diversity and abundance of marine life soon enough. Worldwide system change takes more vision, knowledge and energy. GLORES will catalyze transformation in marine conservation by:

1) Using a scientifically sound biogeographic framework for protecting ecosystems. Within large areas of ocean, similar oceanographic conditions favor similar species. When specific areas are hit by transient oil spills, warming events or acidified water, species surviving elsewhere within the same regions can recolonize impacted areas, a phenomenon ecologists call metapopulation dynamics. Networks of strongly protected areas in each biogeographic region will safeguard many species against extinction. Marine Conservation Institute and our partners in GLORES will convene marine scientists to create a global marine biogeographic map for conserving representative networks of the world’s marine ecosystems.

2) Establishing clear, transparent criteria for location, strong protection, management and enforcement to save species and their habitats from preventable harm. Today’s marine protected areas are a quasi-random collection of places, some poorly located, many of them too small, and too weakly protected, managed and enforced. They therefore lack the benefits that emerge from a scientifically well-designed system. The world needs better-located, larger, better-connected, strongly protected areas to conserve marine life in the 21st Century and beyond. Only establishing strong, consistent standards for location, size, legal protection, management adequacy and effective enforcement will maximize the chance that life in marine protected areas can survive increasing stresses in decades to come. The GLORES partners will convene leading marine experts to develop what will become the de facto standards for the world’s most effective protected areas, namely Bronze, Silver and Gold Global Ocean Refuges.

3) Fostering improved cooperation among nongovernmental organizations to achieve GLORES goals. Cooperation among marine NGOs is not always the case because they compete for attention and funding, so most operate independently. We recognize and applaud the important contributions that have been made, but believe that NGOs working together can markedly increase the prospects for change at a system level that will advance protection of marine life. GLORES will incentivize its NGO partners to cooperate by offering them recognition and resources to pursue their own models of getting governments and international governmental organizations to create strong marine protected areas. Benefitting from emergent properties of the partners’ strengths, GLORES will change the dynamic in marine conservation. That would be a win for ocean advocates, ocean users, oceans and humankind. GLORES will not replace existing efforts to protect individual places or species; building on them, it will use advances in science and technology to create a new conservation framework. GLORES will succeed as partners apply their strengths and expertise towards our shared vision of diverse and bountiful oceans.

4) Incentivizing competition among countries and international governmental organizations for the prestige and economic benefits of earning Global Ocean Refuge status for the best existing and new marine protected areas. Governments and international governmental organizations usually act out of self-interest, often allowing harm to the sea because they don’t have enough incentive to conserve. But NGOs such as the US Green Building Council (which awards highly coveted LEED certification), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Academy Awards) and the International Olympic Committee (Bronze, Silver, Gold medals) show that that individuals and governments will devote substantial resources to gain the prestige and economic benefits of having “the best” in the eyes of the world. Of course, to test our ideas, we will carefully analyze relevant cases of NGO-driven incentives that work and not work. Based on the criteria we then call upon expert scientists to develop, GLORES partners will confer Bronze, Silver and Gold Global Ocean Refuge status on the best individual MPAs, and put in place a global strategy to gain annual media coverage of these very competitive, prestigious awards. We will work with the travel and tourism industry and with the major international lending institutions and donors to create strong economic incentives for governments and international governmental organizations to designate places that can earn Global Ocean Refuge status. It is not lost on us that protecting 20% of each biogeographic region has opportunity costs for fisheries in the short term, but ultimately benefits fisheries so much that National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala rightly calls the strongest marine protected areas (well-enforced no-take marine reserves) “fish banks”.6 Within years, the fishing outside them improves.

To recover marine life, so people regain benefits of healthy oceans including fresh seafood, clean beaches, abundant well-paid jobs and major tax revenues to governments, the world needs an effective global system of strongly protected places.

Clearly some threats to oceans (e.g., climate change and acidification) are so powerful that protected areas cannot stop their advance. But it is important to know that: 1) even these unwelcome changes will happen in more-or-less predictable spatial patterns, and 2) places that have abundant, diverse marine life will provide refuge and make the world far more resilient to climate change and acidification. By using the latest marine science and incentivizing conservation behaviors, GLORES will find ways to create new, strongly protected marine areas where they are most-needed, so that the fullest range of species can survive.

Now is the time to start the path to GLORES.

Photo credit: James Watt

Elliott Norse, Founder and Chief Scientist, Marine Conservation Institute

Literature Cited:

1 Norse, EA, (1993). Global Marine Biological Diversity: A Strategy for Building Conservation into Decision Making. Island Press, Washington DC

2 World Database on Protected Areas

3 Mora, C and PF Sale (2011). Ongoing global biodiversity loss and the need to move beyond protected areas: A review of the technical andpractical shortcomings of protected areas on land and sea. Marine Ecology Progress Series 434: 251-266

4 Lester, SE and BS Halpern (2008). Biological responses in marine no-take reserves versus partially protected areas. Marine Ecology Progress Series 367:49-56

5 California Environmental Associates (2012). Charting a Course to Sustainable Fisheries

6 Waghorn, G (2012). Can we eat our fish and protect them too? Forbes 2/21/12