Let us start with a really simple question: how do we protect the ocean?
Although this question has been asked for many years and an increasing amount of people are working to respond to it, it seems that the answer is actually not that easy and that the question is still worth asking.
It is pretty well understood that the ocean and marine life are put under pressure: climate change, overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution… all these threats are impairing the health of the ocean and putting marine biodiversity at risk.
But what can we do? Is there a single-bullet solution that could alleviate all these threats at the same time and enable a peaceful coexistence of our species with the rest of the living world?
It may seem a bit utopian to think like this, but there is some truth behind this question.
While there is an urgent need to change our ways of producing and consuming, there is also the possibility to rapidly and efficiently protect most marine life with one single action: creating marine protected areas (MPAs).
Hum… Creating protected areas to protect the ocean? Has no one thought of this before?
Of course, people did. It is an idea globally accepted and yet so little of the Earth’s surface area is currently protected. Let alone the ocean, of which less than 3% is currently protected from human activities.
The answer to our opening question starts to appear more clearly: efficiently designing and implementing MPAs would be a great start to protecting the ocean.
Let’s dive deeper into this solution… In this new article, we will tell you about the importance of implementing marine reserves, their benefits for marine biodiversity, fisheries, food security, the adaptation and mitigation to climate change and show you that we can find a realistic way to live harmoniously with all the inhabitants of our blue planet.
The ranges of Marine Protected Areas: from full protection to none
Before talking about the importance and the need for marine protected areas, let’s redefine what they are.
Not all marine protected areas are the same: there are different « categories », classified by their level of protection, from full to minimal:
- Fully protected: no impact from extractive or destructive activities (fishing, trawling, anchoring…);
- Highly protected: impact is minimal;
- Lightly protected: impact is moderate;
- Minimally protected: impact is total (and yet it can still be called a « marine protected area »).
As we further explain the benefits of marine protected areas for marine biodiversity and humans, we need to keep in mind that these benefits only happen on one condition: the MPAs are either highly or fully protected. Little if not zero benefits follow the implementation of lightly or minimally protected areas.
Protecting marine biodiversity
Marine life is at risk: most populations of marine organisms are in decline and many marine species are facing extinction. To say the least, the need to protect marine life and help it to recover is urgent.
Luckily, one of the most obvious and straightforward benefits of implementing a marine protected area is that it protects marine biodiversity. Giving space and time to life, without any human disturbances, allow it to grow and regenerate to a natural and healthy level.
The number of scientific studies existing on the topics is tremendous and they all agree: in (highly/fully) protected areas, marine life comes back. The individuals can grow back and reproduce, forming larger and healthier populations. As a result, species extinction risk is minimised and the diversity and resilience of the ecosystem increase.
This seems so obvious that it is legitimate to ask ourselves why we have not protected more areas of the ocean. One of the main reasons behind this lack of progress is that the implementation of a marine protected area is often seen as a trade-off to human benefits: creating a reserve and prohibiting human disturbances will only lead to socio-economic losses and will have a detrimental impact on communities that rely on these areas for their livelihoods.
The rationale behind these thoughts is understandable, yet it is wrong. Actually, implementing marine protected areas incredibly benefits humans, from cultural, educational, food security and economic perspectives.
Increasing food security
Fishing is one of the biggest threats to marine biodiversity. Actually, it is not fishing itself, but rather the overfishing of fish populations that are causing a lot of damage to the ocean. Organisms are being extracted at such a rapid rate in literally every part of the ocean, that populations do not have the time or space to recover. This is where marine protected areas come into play: it is about giving time and space to marine organisms to grow back.
How can it actually benefit fisheries? It follows a really logical process: the biomass (number and size) of commercially important species increase over time and the population replenish. As a consequence, the level of reproduction increases, and adults and larvae can then go beyond the « frontiers » of the MPA and fuel the surrounding fishing grounds – a process called the “spillover” effect.
It has been shown that if MPAs were strategically placed over 28% of the ocean, food provisioning could increase by 6 million metric tonnes. Protecting areas of the ocean will help to replenish fish populations beyond these areas and as a consequence, provide us with an important source of food.
However, to ensure the spillover effect and the benefits to local fisheries we need to make sure that:
- The marine protected area is highly or fully protected from human destructive and extractive activities (no fishing allowed);
- We give time to fish populations to bounce back (it does not happen overnight);
The implementation of the MPA goes hand in hand with improved fisheries management (quotas, methods, effort, distribution etc.).
A solution for the climate crisis?
Another huge challenge we need to face now is climate change.
The amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to our activities are disrupting the whole climate cycle and putting us and all life forms at risk through increasing temperatures, increasing extreme droughts, fires and other weather events.
What is the link with marine protected areas though?? How implementing marine protected areas could help us to alleviate the climate crisis?
It all comes back to the role the ocean plays in the climate cycle: the ocean is one of the biggest sinks of carbon.
The seabed is one of the biggest pools of organic carbon on Earth as it accumulates sediments. When they are being disturbed (for example by trawling or mining), these sediments release huge amounts of carbon into the ocean, worsening the climate situation. Yet, if left undisturbed, they will play the role of long-term carbon storage, locking it forever and accumulating more through time.
Seagrass meadows and mangrove forests are two marine ecosystems considered as « blue carbon » ecosystems: they capture and store huge amounts of carbon. Again, when these ecosystems are disturbed or damaged, they release carbon. If they are being protected, they will continue to capture and lock carbon for a long period of time and hence, be our great allies to face climate change.
These ecosystems are also important for coastal protection as they slow down the wave energy coming from the open ocean, protecting coastal populations from storms, erosion and sea-level rise – all of which are supposed to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change.
The ocean is really our biggest ally in the face of climate change, as much as to alleviate than to mitigate it. Strategically placed marine protected areas which encompass carbon-rich seabed and ecosystems can increase the amount of CO2 captured by the ocean, as well as protect the coast against the effects of climate change. This would of course need to go hand in hand with a drastic reduction in our CO2 emissions.
Engaging people in the protection of the ocean
Creating marine reserves is not about fully excluding human activities from the area and preventing us from accessing the ocean completely. Of course, fishing and other extractive, disturbing and destructive activities should be prohibited but other activities such as swimming, snorkelling, kayaking or paddle boarding could be permitted and allow for a new way of experiencing the ocean, in a much more respectful and harmonious way.
With marine life thriving within protected areas, seeing it and learning about it would be a great medium to increase awareness, knowledge and the wish to protect it. Through eco-tourism tours and educational activities for schools and local communities, humans could discover marine life as it should really be: beautifully thriving, diverse and rich.
Tension can sometimes arise through the implementation of marine protected areas, due to the different needs and wishes of different stakeholders (tourism, fishing…). However, once all the stakeholders are gathered around the table, and the benefits of marine protected areas are explicitly exposed and understood by all, there is the opportunity for all to come up with a shared vision and sense of purpose to protect their local environment.
At the end of the day, even if each has its specific needs (from an economic or ecological point of view), the implementation of marine protected areas shows us that it is possible to reconcile everyone, humans and non-humans.
Protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030
Although the global protection of biodiversity has been on the global political agenda for decades, little has been put in place to counterbalance the devastating effects of human populations on the planet.
Many nations have agreed to international commitments to create marine protected areas in their own waters to respond to the global goals for biodiversity conservation.
Yet, less than 3% of the ocean is actually implemented as fully or highly protected areas with sufficient and adequate regulations to provide benefits. Only 2 countries (the UK & Palau) have protected more than 30% of their waters under highly and fully MPAs and only 7 more have protected more than 10%.
As a result, an urgent call to action to protect more of the ocean has been taking place among scientists, activists and NGOs. The 30×30 campaign was launched as a call to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 through a global network of marine protected areas. This target is an opportunity to really safeguard the health and biodiversity of the ocean while helping us to mitigate and adapt to climate change and benefit humans.
Finally, if we go back to our opening question: “how do we actually protect the ocean?”, the answer seems pretty straightforward.
Implementing marine protected areas that are fully or highly protected with adequate regulations, could help to safeguard most marine life. Of course, this should always be accompanied by other conservation actions and better management systems, but it would be an amazing starting point.
Imagining a world, where humans can still fish and explore the ocean whilst allowing colourful and diverse ecosystems blooming with marine life to exist, is a thought that gets closer to a potential reality than to a far-away utopia. We just need the political will to make this happen, and for that, we need to keep spreading the word and calling our political leaders out for taking responsibility.
Never forget that life is resilient and can bounce back. Although the current ecological situation may seem and feel overwhelming, there is true hope for a brighter and bluer future. We have the tools and knowledge we need to fix the damage we have created, we just need to start using them in a more efficient way!