Ocean protection, on paper, is a priority around the world – nations have pledged to protect vital coastal and marine habitats as part of their commitment to conserve biodiversity. But how are we really doing five years after countries collectively agreed to protect 10 per cent of the ocean? And is that target the right level of protection for what is needed to restore the health of our Ocean?

 “By 2020, at least … 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.” - Aichi Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity

Image credit: Cristian Dimitrius Photography

First the good news, in the past year (2015) nearly 2.5 million km2 of unprotected ocean was proposed for full protection. These new protected areas include Chile’s Easter Island Marine Park, New Zealand’s Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary, and the United Kingdom’s Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve.  Although only about two per cent of the ocean is currently protected, these new areas, when added to other committed protections around the world, will bring global ocean protection to almost six per cent when officially in place. That’s great news and a big step in the right direction.

The island nation of Palau is now leading the world in strong ocean conservation by recently designating 80 per cent of its waters as no-take areas.

Six per cent is more ocean protection than at in any other time in our lives. Much of it exists in massive no-take areas where all marine life is safeguarded. Starting with the creation of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, the creation of large reserves has become a global movement.  The island nation of Palau is now leading the world in strong ocean conservation by recently designating 80 per cent of its waters as no-take areas.

Image credit: MPAtlas.org

Several nations have already met the global target to protect 10 per cent of their coast and ocean, including: Australia (10.25 per cent), Belize (10.67 per cent), Chile (12.81 per cent), Ecuador (12.9 per cent), Germany (41.6 per cent), Kiribati (11.87 per cent), South Africa (11.3 per cent), the United Kingdom (16.2 per cent) and the United States (16.6 per cent) [1].

Image credit: www.sealegacy.org

So … the bad news?  All of this progress still only protects a small fraction of the ocean – marine life and fisheries are on the decline in many areas of the world, and impacts from climate change are making matters worse. Also, the Aichi targets don’t tell us a huge amount about how we should protect the oceans.

The target uses the phrase "effectively conserved", which is open to broad interpretation. Many countries have interpreted it to mean different things, including relatively poor quality protections and at worst, parks only on paper. The science community has established that ‘no-take marine reserves’ are the most effective marine conservation tool, yet only one per cent of the ocean is protected in reserves. That means that while many countries are taking steps to protect marine life, few have actually used the advice from marine biologists.

Even while some individual countries have made significant progress in protecting their national waters, there are no fully protected large areas of the high seas. The high seas makes up about 64 per cent of the entire ocean area – a huge global commons of international waters belonging to no single country, but the responsibility of all.

...while many countries are taking steps to protect marine life, few have actually used the advice from marine biologists.

Currently, the world doesn’t have an agreed upon instrument through which we can establish high seas protected areas. Even in Antarctica, where there is a treaty in place with the legal ability to create large protected areas, and where the vast majority of countries participating want this to be done, a few hold-out nations have prevented the establishment of marine parks, preferring to continue to debate about it for more than five years. 

Image credit: www.sealegacy.org

There is also another large caveat regarding effective ocean conservation that is worth noting – the Aichi targets should be “ecologically representative”, which means they protect all of the diverse habitats found within a country’s waters.  As an example, the United States, the country with the largest amount of ocean under its jurisdiction, has protected 16.6 per cent of its waters. However, the vast majority of this protection is confined to the central Pacific, and there exists very little protection in other regions (i.e., the Bering sea, the Arctic ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, etc.). Such gaps translate to minimal ecological representivity.

The UK is in the same boat. Like the US, the UK has much to be proud about, and they have made significant efforts in protecting their overseas territories [2], but the waters surrounding the UK in the north Atlantic and North Sea are barely protected and are well under the 10 per cent Aichi target. 

To achieve the further goal of 30 per cent of the ocean fully protected - the amount that scientists suggest is necessary to set aside to avoid mass extinctions and help regenerate marine life – the global conservation community needs to chart a new course. Marine Conservation Institute envisions a Global Ocean Refuge System that will help us achieve this larger goal.  

Getting to 10 per cent is a big step, and it is encouraging that so many nations have made great progress in recent years. Getting a treaty for the high seas (preparatory meetings actually begin at the United Nations this year on what a new treaty might look like) will mean enormous progress can be made towards protecting life in our oceans.

Getting countries to agree to protect magnificent marine areas around Antarctica is something that can happen this year if countries work together and show global leadership together for marine conservation. Getting to 30x30 is doable and something we should all work together to get done.

This article is part of our Ocean Unite 2016 Ocean series. To learn more about Ocean Unite and the incredible work they do visit their website and join them in uniting and activating powerful voices for ocean conservation.

[1] These numbers are curated and calculated by MPAtlas.org.

[2] When current commitments to protect Pitcairn Island, Ascension Island and the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands are in force the United Kingdom will have protected nearly 2 million sq km of ocean, or ~46% of its marine estate.

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