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Last week I had the opportunity to address the United Nations as part of a high-level symposium organized by the Ocean Sanctuary Alliance. You can watch my comments online;  scroll to about 1:50 minutes. I also encourage you to catch the comments by Drs. Callum Roberts and Ellen Pikitch prior to mine, and the other marine biologists that follow.

Under the leadership of President Remengesau of Palau and his Ambassador to the UN, Stuart Beck, a new conversation is underway at the UN level to advance the creation of marine protected areas worldwide. Readers of our blog already understand why we need ocean sanctuaries. Our Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) initiative highlights many of these, but to recap: 85% of global marine fisheries are either “overfished, depleted or recovering” (32%) or “fully exploited” (53%). Communities and leaders around the world are focusing more attention on increasing protections in order to sustain marine life for us and future generations.

In the past decade, numerous reports have documented the role fishing has played in population declines. The overfishing of apex predators, such as sharks, has cascading effects for ecosystems that ultimately result in an imbalanced system. For example, the bycatch of oceanic whitetip sharks has led to a 99.7% population decline in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1950s. This leads to an increase in populations of other species, such as rays, which then deplete important shellfish populations causing economic harm to fishermen.

Bottom trawling, an ecologically devastating method of fishing, has had detrimental and long-lasting impacts on deep-sea corals and sponges in seamount ecosystems. Even deep-sea sediments and seafloor biogeochemical cycles are dramatically altered by this fishing method. Chronic and intensive bottom trawling impairs deep-sea biodiversity and essential ecosystem functions, and it is undeniable that overfishing has led to ecosystem collapse around the world.

Even as we work hard to improve the sustainability of fishing, our oceans now face dramatic consequences from increased CO2 in our atmosphere. Ocean acidification, a key factor in past mass extinctions, is increasing. There is also mounting evidence that another great extinction event has already begun, and that extinction rates in recent times have now increased about 1,000-fold above the background rate of extinction.

Clearly, we need more protection, and soon.

So what does global marine protected area coverage look like today?

Current numbers (as of this posting) from identify 11,333 marine protected areas (including many overlapping designations) in 137 countries covering about 2.12% of ocean area. Only half of that area (0.94% of the ocean) is protected in no-take reserves, which safeguard marine life from the harmful effects of fishing and other extractive uses, such as drilling for oil and gas. Encouragingly, an estimated additional 3% of the ocean has been proposed for marine protected area designation (see map at Our SeaStates G20  report, which breaks down marine protected area and no-take marine reserve coverage by each of the twenty largest national economies, found that only five G20 countries have protected more than 1% of their oceans in no-take reserves. Fortunately, there has been some recent progress through the designation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area as no-take and the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

While we know that reserves are scientifically proven to protect marine life across a variety of ecosystem types, what remains is for us to create the political will to implement these protected areas. Marine Conservation Institute’s major initiative, the Global Ocean Refuge System, was launched to improve the incentives for establishing marine reserves that are strongly protected. I look forward to collaborating with the Ocean Sanctuary Alliance on this revolutionary initiative.

Want to learn more about something in this blog? Check out the papers listed below. And we look forward to your continued support of the Global Ocean Refuge System and the related MPAtlas!

  1. On fish stocks: 2012 FAO report on fisheries
  2. On Oceanic Whitetips: Baum, J & R Myers (2004). Ecology Letters 7: 135-145
  3. On bottom trawling: Althaus F, Williams A, Schlacher TA, Kloser RJ et al (2009)Mar Ecol Prog Ser 397:279-294
  4. On deep sea biogeochemical cycles: Pusceddu, A et al (2014) PNAS 111:  8861–8866, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1405454111
  5. On overfishing leading to ecosystem collapse and harm to fishermen: Jackson, J et al. (2001) Science 293: 629-638 (Myers, R et al. (2007) Science 315: 1846-1850
  6. On ocean acidification leading to extinction: Veron, JE (2008) A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End
  7. On the modern mass extinction: Ward, P (1995) The End of Evolution: Dinosaurs, Mass Extinction and Biodiversity; Pimm, SL et al. (2014) Science 344 (6187) 1246752-7