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Marine Protected Areas I: Why are they Necessary?

Photo by USAID Asia. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

The global marine biodiversity crisis

Issues relating to the marine environment are not a novelty, but they are being considered increasingly often within political discussions. For example, at the UN’s Ocean Conference that took place in Lisbon in late June 2022, problematic topics such as marine pollution, ocean acidification, sustainability in the exploitation of marine resources, and conservation, restoration, management and protection of marine and coastal ecosystems were addressed on the global stage.

Thus, just as the issues concerning the ocean are not new, neither are those which led marine biodiversity to a global crisis. A report released by the World Wildlife Fund in 2020 shows a decline of around 68% “in mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian” biodiversity since 1970, and when it comes to marine species, in particular, around 21.9% are threatened with extinction. Nearly 38% of all sharks and rays are threatened, mostly due to overfishing. In 2017, 34% of global fish stocks were estimated to be overfished, in contrast with just 10% in 1974. Additionally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its sixth and most recent assessment report, estimated with very high confidence that in a world 2ºC warmer, >99% of coral species may disappear (see p. 42, Chapter 3).

It is normal, in fact, for biodiversity to change with time, but the pace at which it is declining, and the direct link between such rapid decline and human activities, is worth paying attention to, as it indicates the proximity of a mass extinction event caused by only one species – the homo sapiens sapiens. However, the numbers indicated above – which are related to only some of the several marine species that can be encountered within the world’s ocean – do not appear to be changing for the better, despite the measures adopted and implemented by the international community to reverse the worrisome status quo.

But why should the global crisis that concerns marine biodiversity be in the spotlight of policy and decision-makers?

Marine biodiversity and ecosystem services: the role of a healthy ocean in people’s lives

When the term “marine biodiversity” is employed, people tend to connect it to fisheries and food systems, which is not entirely incorrect.

Indeed, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program (FAO) shows in its 2020 report on The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, in 2017 “fish provided more than 3.3 billion people with 20 percent of their per capita intake of animal proteins”, a percentage that jumped to 50% in relation to developing and small island countries (see p. 67). Fisheries are, in fact, the main source of income, food and economic development for several small island nations.

Nonetheless, the vast number of marine species and ecosystems provide many more benefits other than serving as important food sources, and themselves suffer negative effects from human activities other than fisheries.

For instance, coastal wetlands and coral reefs can provide a buffer effect for storm surges, increasing the resilience of coastal and insular communities in the face of climate change. They also serve as nurseries and feeding sites for different species. Additionally, some marine ecosystems – such as wetlands – are also great carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbers, with oceans considered the largest carbon sink on Earth. They are also the world’s greatest thermo-regulator, without which the current climate change scenario could be far worse.

Furthermore, a well-preserved marine environment with cared-for biodiversity attracts tourism, on which many countries rely as one of their main sources of income (see, for instance, a fact sheet by the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a paper by Karani & Failler, 2020). It should also be borne in mind that, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), “the oceans provide the main transport arteries for global trades”, with “around 90% of traded goods [being] carried over the waves”. In that sense, it is estimated that about “11 billion tons of goods are transported by ship each year”.

However, nearly all human activities, whether land or ocean-based, are developed at the price of causing several stresses to the marine environment.

The interaction between human activities and marine biodiversity

Since 1971, when the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was signed by more than 170 nations to protect wetlands of international importance, around 35% of wetlands were lost due to human activity, especially due to the conversion of those areas for “agricultural, residential and industrial” usage.

Also, as aforementioned and according to the IPCC, at the current pace of global warming, a massive decline in coral species is expected within this century as one among many consequences of human-induced climate change.

Intensive fishing, in turn, is an activity to which the depletion of marine species – including non-targeted ones – can be directly traced , and is also a source of pollution due to abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), which can cause highly problematic issues to marine biodiversity, such as ghost fishing and entanglement (see also Gilman et al., 2021). Finally, in the case of navigation, there are the issues of noise pollution, which can cause many problems to marine species that are sensitive to sounds, in addition to the risks of damaging habitats, leading to the collision between vessels and marine species, and leading to accidental oil spills or discharge of hazardous waste.

Regulating human activities in the marine environment: a legal patchwork

Those different stresses, when accumulated – as it indeed happens –, lead to the appearance and increase of dangers to the many forms of marine life (see the articles by Carrier-Belleau et al., 2021, and by O’Hara, Frazier & Halpern, 2021).

That is one of the reasons why the aforementioned activities are subject to some form of regulation by different national, regional, and international organisations, each having the competence to regulate a particular activity, with a pre-determined spatial jurisdiction.

Fisheries, for instance, apart from being regulated nationally by coastal and insular nations, are also subject to regional regulations by the so-called Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). For example: the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, (NEAFC), the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC), and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). These, among many others, vary according to each political boundary set within the oceanic space.

Navigation, in turn, is regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Seabed mining beyond national jurisdiction is regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), and by national (and sometimes regional) legal systems when it comes to the maritime zones under nations’ jurisdiction.

It should be noted that those organisations, as created and composed by nations, have a legal duty to protect the marine environment, in accordance with Article 192 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the primary objective of their regulations is that of ensuring the continuity of the industry whose activities they regulate. Sometimes, to endure that task, measures related to the conservation, protection or restoration of the marine environment will indeed be employed, but one cannot mistake such measures for those which have the wealth of the marine environment as a primary purpose.

Further, and in addition to that patchwork of regulations, the competence for promoting the general health and wealth of the marine environment, which includes its biodiversity and ecosystems, is held by different organisms, which cannot interfere with the activities that are regulated by others. It means that an international organisation whose competence is to protect and conserve the marine environment cannot issue any wide-reaching regulations related to fisheries, navigation, and seabed mining, for example.

To illustrate that situation, there is the case of the OSPAR Commission, which has the competence to protect and conserve the marine environment of an area designated as the North-East Atlantic Ocean – exactly the same area where the NEAFC has the jurisdiction to regulate fisheries. However, the OSPAR Commission cannot regulate that activity. Thus, to be able to exercise its legal duty to promote the protection and conservation of the marine environment within that area, the OSPAR Commission formed a cooperation agreement with NEAFC – as well as with other international organizations that hold contrasting competences.

Nonetheless, that is only one among several cases in which jurisdictions overlap within the ocean, turning the protection and conservation of marine biodiversity into an even more challenging task, as it already involves a considerable number of actors, regulations, and competences. Hence, different organisations may find themselves regulating the same issues in different ways, often undermining each other’s efforts.

A tool to overcome the legal patchwork and protect marine biodiversity

The global marine biodiversity crisis calls for the use of a tool that promotes cooperation between the many actors involved in the urgent task of reversing the status quo. This tool must bring into harmony the contrasting regulations concerning different activities, and aim for a common primary purpose of protecting, conserving, and restoring marine biodiversity.

The tool in question is the use of Marine Protected Areas.

A protected area is defined by the IUCN as a “clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”. Within the marine environment, they receive a more detailed definition by the same organisation, consisting of “any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment”, a concept to which the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have officially expressed their agreement.

That is, indeed, a tool that has the protection and conservation of marine biodiversity, habitats, and ecosystems as a primary objective, and that is why it is so important in the face of the current (and worsening) scenario. Unfortunately, only about 8.1% of the world’s ocean is covered by some sort of marine protected area, most of them existing under national jurisdiction (that is, created by a coastal or insular nation within the limits of its sovereignty or jurisdiction over the ocean), with the high seas and its many freedoms being a challenge to creating protected sites beyond national jurisdiction (see Article 87 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).

Alongside the shifting political mindset mentioned at the very beginning of the present blog post, civil society is also becoming more aware of the importance of a healthy ocean, and of the importance and necessity of protecting and conserving the world’s marine biodiversity.

As the first of a series of blog posts related to the subject of marine protected areas, here the intention was only to introduce the issue and present the protective and conservation tool in question. The upcoming articles within this series will explore topics such as the relationship between marine protected areas and sustainability, climate change adaptation and mitigation, as well as the barriers and benefits to establishing protected sites in different areas of the ocean, among many other curiosities and complexities related to marine protected areas. This series is written with a view to informing CYIS’s audience as to how those sites work, what is their importance, and which are the many kinds of marine protected areas around the globe.

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