Marine Protected Areas Are Not An Either/Or

Fish MPAs ocean

This blog article from Deep Sea News responds to the points raised about marine protected areas in the recent article bigger is not better for ocean conservation from the New York Times.

Ocean science and conservation, like any human enterprise, is subject to its fair share of internal messiness from time to time.  As someone whose expertise and experience intersects several discrete domains (coral reefs, sharks, marine protected areas, and policy), I’ve witnessed plenty of dust-ups, arguments, and spats over the years.

And this week’s flurry of discussion instigated by a New York Times editorial on ocean protected areas is just the latest kerfuffle. In his op-ed, Bigger Is Not Better for Conservation, coral reef scientist and California Academy of Sciences curator, Dr Luiz Rocha, argues that large-scale, remote marine reserves are a disservice to ocean conservation.  It’s Dr Rocha’s perspectives, however, that seem more damaging.

The key points

Rocha’s argument hinges on four key points:

  1. The current tally of big, remote marine reserves is in low-conflict, easy to protect areas of the ocean where human reliance upon them is negligible and therefore government willingness to protect is strong;
  2. There’s nothing worth protecting in these big, remote areas;
  3. More important, smaller, near-shore ocean areas with high levels of human use are in dire need of protection;
  4. Marine protected areas should be science-based (eg, protected zones should be guided by “sustainable catch limits” of commercially targeted species).

Let’s go one-by-one to see if any of these points hold water.

(Note: For the sake of brevity, I’ll be using the acronym MPA frequently in this piece for “marine protected area,” but it will also serve as shorthand for “marine reserve,” “protected area,” “locally managed marine area,” or “marine managed area.”  I recognize that an MPA may not be managed or enforced, but let’s forego that technicality for the moment.)

1. Big MPAs are easy and less consequential

As of today, there are approximately 20 large-scale protected areas across the ocean (ranging from tens-of-thousands to millions of square kilometers in protected area).  This includes a range from the Marianas Marine National Monument’s 16,400 square kilometers to the 1.15 million square kilometers of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i.

These MPAs may consist of fully-protected, no-take (no fishing/extraction) designation to protection that still allows multiple uses.  According to the folks at MPA Atlas, there are approximately 15,000 small, coastal MPAs around the world.

Some of these, like Cordelia Banks off the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras, encompass only 17 square kilometers.  Many are even smaller.  Totaling all of the massive/remote and small/near-shore MPAs together gets us to approximately 2% of the ocean under some form of protection.

Protecting big/remote areas or smaller/near-shore areas is not an either/or game. This is not a binary proposition of doing one or the other. It’s a yes/also. We need to protect small, not so small, medium, larger, big, bigger, and massive tracts of the ocean.

We need to protect what is easy to protect, and what is harder to protect. We must gather every bit of low-hanging fruit, and plan to reach the currently out-of-reach fruit.

MPAs occupy a spectrum or continuum, and we need to be prepared to work with everything along that spectrum. Some NGOs will have a mandate (and talent) for pursuing big swaths of ocean.

Others are more tuned to work on local needs. But there is a lot of real estate between the biggest and smallest MPAs for organizations, individuals, and yes, even FUNDERS to find their niche.

Read the full piece at Deep Sea News.

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