Race for vast remote MPAs a diversion?

whale shark high seas

The seas around Hawaii are set to become one of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPAs), US president Barack Obama has announced. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument will be expanded to more than 1.5m square kilometres – that’s as big as France, Spain and Germany combined.

If this story sounds familiar that’s because it is. Last year, the UK created the previous world’s largest continuous marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, and it set up another huge marine protected area around Ascension Island in January 2016. Chile, France and New Zealand have all made similar moves in the past few years, turning the waters surrounding their most remote island territories (such as Easter Island) into huge nature reserves.

Supporters say these marine protected areas, known as MPAs, have a key role to play in marine conservation as they protect from fishing, mining, drilling or other human activities, and allow habitats and species to be restored.

Yet these protections might be undermining the very aims of global marine conservation targets. As argued in a viewpoint published in the journal Marine Policy, it’s not enough to simply cover the remotest parts of our oceans in notional “protection” – we need to focus on seas closer to shore, where most of the fishing and drilling actually happens.

Massive Reserves

Under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by almost every country in the world, one of the agreed targets is to designate 10% of the area of the world’s oceans as MPA by 2020. We are a long way from this, however, with less than 4% of the global marine area currently protected.

Even this is largely thanks to vast remote MPAs in distant seas that are subject to few human pressures. While there are more than 6,000 MPAs in total, the majority (62%) of the global coverage is down to just 24 huge areas.

Recent proposals to increase the MPA target to 30% of the world’s seas, to be discussed at the World Conservation Congress beginning on September 1, can arguably only be met through an increasing focus on the designation of vast remote MPAs.

From the perspective of national governments, Hawaii, Ascension and similar protected areas are an easy win. Leaders gain some green credentials while making progress towards their country’s individual MPA target, and all for minimal political cost.

After all, these vast protected areas tend to be in overseas territories without much commercial use. Given this easy option is available, why go through the politically and economically expensive process of creating smaller protected areas closer to the mainland?

However, as discussed in the paper, there are concerns that marine conservation aims could be undermined by this focus on a few big areas. The marine biodiversity target is about much more than the proportion of the seas that are covered.

It also states, for instance, that the networks of MPAs must be effective, meaning restrictions on fishing, mining and so on are actually enforced. But how do you properly police a patch of ocean almost as big as the state of Alaska? The very vastness and isolation of these protected zones around Pacific or Atlantic islands means they are extremely expensive to patrol.

The biodiversity target also specifies that the MPA networks must be representative, in that they should protect typical examples of habitats and species in each of the world’s 232 ecoregions, and well connected, in that ecological processes such as fish migrations and larval dispersal should be able to bridge the gaps between protected areas.

Read the full article The race for vast remote ‘marine protected areas’ may be a diversion at The Conversation.

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