The oceans are in dire need of protection – fish stocks are declining, sensitive seafloor habitats are being degraded and lost, species are at risk of extinctions. Thankfully, there is growing global concern and increasing consensus around the need for action. But, achieving this protection is challenging, and it is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a fundamental way to protect our oceans; these are areas where mankind's damaging activities are restricted or managed, acting as a safe haven for vulnerable marine habitats and species. International targets (agreed in 2010) – set the challenge to protect 10 percent of marine and coastal ecosystems by 2020 through such MPAs. Progress towards these targets has to date been woefully slow; although has been bolstered in recent times through the designation of a number of large MPAs that cover vast expanses (thousands of square kilometers) of the ocean (an estimated 5 percent of the world's oceans are now under some form of protection).
A recent article in the New York Times ('Bigger is not better for ocean protection') challenges that when it comes to MPAs, bigger is not necessarily better in terms of delivering conservation benefits for our stressed oceans. The article cautions that the protection of large remote areas of ocean – which contain important biodiversity but typically are accessed by few people and face relatively low levels of human pressures – should not occur at the expense of protection for critically important coastal and estuarine waters – which are at the nexus of human use, abuse and demand.
It is clear that in making ocean protection work we also need to talk about MPA effectiveness (how well they actually protect what is there), and representativeness (ensuring that a wide range of biodiversity and marine life from the coast all the way to the open ocean and deep sea are afforded effective protection to prevent further loss and degradation).
Fauna & Flora International (FFI)'s own work has tended to focus, in both terrestrial and marine realms, on those areas where people and biodiversity are in closest contact. The majority of our marine projects around the world fill the gaps in the system that the NY Times article identifies, focusing on the coastal zone and inshore waters which are vital spawning and breeding sites for so much ocean biodiversity; but which are also more contested, highly fished and difficult to achieve conservation in.
It is in the coastal zones where marine biodiversity is at its highest, where people are most reliant on the marine resources to supply their food and income needs, and where the threats posed are highest. For example, coral reefs and associated seagrass and mangrove habitats found in shallow coastal waters are home to myriad marine life, providing critical breeding, spawning and feeding grounds, but are also highly threatened by local fishing, tourism, development and pollution impacts. Protection of marine resources in these crowded inshore waters is delivered through small, often hard won, steps, and requires creative design, involving all those using and relying on these habitats for their livelihoods.
From Indonesia to Honduras and Tanzania to Scotland we work with the local communities, who depend on these vital coastal resources, to implement effective protection of inshore waters. However, we can't just draw a line on a map and impose a new governance regime in these contexts. We need to understand not just ecological importance and threats around these coasts, but also their use by local people and their own dependencies and vulnerabilities. Only by working hand-in-hand with such communities can we craft solutions that meet everyone's needs, now and into the future, and allow the communities living there to take an active role in decision-making and management for the waters on which they rely. Setting up this kind of effective local governance takes time, and is challenging, but ultimately can deliver results for people and nature – and this is something worth celebrating.
Since 2010 we have worked at 55 sites to secure better protection and management for coastal biodiversity, and helped showcase how these can also work for people. It's true that the starting point for many of these sites is often very small (100's of hectares rather than the vast reserves of 1000's km2 mentioned above). However, these small – but successful sites – quickly breed wider interest and support for replication – ensuring greater representation of coastal habitats under protection. Even with replication we may never be a very significant contributor to global targets.
However, we need to look beyond area-based targets if we are to see healthy oceans. Effective ocean conservation will need to come in all shapes and sizes and the focus should be on making these sites work in practice to change the trajectory for our embattled ocean. We can see that these small sites offer a meaningful way to respond to issues of MPA effectiveness – particularly in demonstrating how marine conservation can work in crowded coastal waters, and in mobilising a wide variety of engaged citizens around the world to be able to play their part in the wider global movement for marine conservation.
We believe our efforts, and those of our many partners at the sites at which we work, are integral in the wider efforts for securing ocean health – filling a key gap in the system related to the conservation of critical coastal habitats.
Explore further: Study finds strong support for ocean protection