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The Role of Marine Protected Areas in the Fight Against Climate Change

Recently, Amazon CEO and the world’s wealthiest person, Jeff Bezos, pledged $10 billion to fight climate change, which he referred to as “the biggest threat to our planet,” via the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund. The vast opportunities created by such large philanthropic initiatives prompt thoughtful deliberation about the necessary actions to minimize and mitigate climate impacts. We often focus on mechanisms that directly reduce fossil fuel consumption, such as using less energy and driving electric cars. There is no question that a significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions is required to minimize climate impacts, and the investment in and adoption of renewable energies is vital. However, as this change won’t happen overnight, it is also critical to protect the health of Earth’s “immune system” – the ocean.

The ocean and climate are inextricably linked. Oceans absorb nearly one-third of carbon dioxide emissions and approximately 90% of the excess heat retained by greenhouse gases (GHG). As a result, marine ecosystems and species are facing critical stresses and threats due to increased emissions from human activities, including sea-level rise, acidification, deoxygenation, increased intensity and frequency of severe weather events, and shifts in species distribution and habitat suitability. While the ocean bears the brunt of many climate impacts, ocean health is also a critical part of the solution. Protecting healthy, functioning marine ecosystems is a key part of resilience.

Strong ocean protections build and maintain ocean health, allowing for greater resistance to and quicker recovery from ecological as well as climate impacts. Marine protected areas (MPAs), although not immune to climate impacts, provide areas of reduced stress on ecosystems and species, allowing for the restoration and maintenance of natural processes that mitigate climate impacts and provide ecosystem services. One example of positive climate impacts from ocean protection comes from great whales. Recently, it was estimated that rebuilding whale populations to pre-exploitation levels would improve productivity in surface waters, dramatically increasing carbon capturing phyto-plankton through nutrient cycling (i.e., whale poop). As another example, with the potential for more severe weather events in a changing climate, healthy coral reefs reduce the power of waves and serve as natural barriers that protect coastal communities from storm impacts and wave damage. Many MPAs also protect important coastal wetlands that sequester carbon, maintain pH, and serve as ecological refugia for calcifying organisms. Minimizing human impacts, such as habitat destruction and overfishing, also increases resilience and safeguards ecosystem services upon which people rely, such as fisheries and natural water filtration, and prevent carbon sequestered in benthic sediments from being released due to disturbance.

As seen in: Roberts, C.M. et al. (2017) Marine reserves can mitigate and promote adaptation to climate change. PNAS 114(24): 6167-6175.

In addition, MPAs will also help protect and maintain biodiversity in the face of climate change. Increased population size and genetic diversity from limited extraction and habitat destruction increases species resilience and adaptability to climate impacts. With warming water temperatures, many mobile species may shift their distributions toward the poles, and migratory species may alter the location and timing of their movements. Ecosystems protected from the damaging impacts of fishing gear and other human activities will maintain suitable habitats for displaced organisms and create a network of healthy ocean areas for migratory connectivity.

Collectively, MPAs are one of many useful and necessary tools for climate mitigation, resilience, and adaptation. To create sufficient and effective protected areas and maintain healthy ocean ecosystems, political and financial mechanisms will be necessary to boost resources and support for the implementation and active management of fully and highly protected areas. At Marine Conservation Institute, our Blue Parks initiative works to recognize outstanding marine protected areas, incentivize new efforts, and unite MPA communities worldwide. It’s our goal to create an urgently-needed worldwide system to ensure future diversity and abundance of marine life in healthy ocean ecosystems. Become an Ocean Guardian or donate to support our work to enhance the ocean’s climate change resiliency.