Our oceans face multiple threats. Climate change, pollution, acidification, overfishing and deep-sea mining all pose an increasing risk to the 80% of our planet’s biodiversity that lives in our seas.
In 2015, as one of its Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations set a target of protecting 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. Today less than 8% is officially protected and experts say the level of protection varies considerably.
A study published last year in the journal Marine Policy said that some of the world’s 14,882 Marine Protection Areas (MPAs) offered no real protection at all. Some had not been implemented and others did not preclude some of the most harmful activities such as fishing and mining.
Protection in name only
The report said the term MPA was being used so loosely that it did not guarantee meaningful protection. It was “a catchall bucket that contains everything from fully protected marine reserves to an area in which only one species is protected or one activity is disallowed.”
The report concluded that only 2% of the world’s oceans are strongly or fully protected. It said a wealth of scientific studies suggested that at least 30% of the world’s oceans needed full MPA protection. It warned that the target of protecting 10% by 2020 was likely to be unachievable.
Some MPAs are what conservationists call “no take” areas in which all fishing and mineral extraction is banned. Others have looser restrictions. In all they encompass 27.5 million square kilometers of ocean. Two fifths are in coastal waters.
Protecting Antarctica’s seas
The largest MPA covers 2 million square kilometers of the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica. Endurance ocean swimmer Lewis Pugh, one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, is heading a campaign to extend the MPA to include all 7 million square kilometers of the seas around Antarctica by next year.
The two most comprehensive cover 100% of the waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific and the French-administered Crozet, Kerguelen, Amsterdam and St Paul islands in the Southern Ocean.
The latest MPA to be designated, in January this year, covers 1,500 square kilometers of ocean around Chile’s Diego Ramirez Islands in the Drake Passage between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica. One of the smallest covers 2.1 square kilometers of sea surrounding the Duck Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which recommended five years ago that 30% of the ocean should be covered by no-take zones, says that, large or small, MPAs provide reservoirs of biodiversity which help the rest of the ocean recover from the impacts of climate change and other threats. Greenpeace and the universities of Oxford and York recently added their voices to the call for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected.
The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.