We've Only Really Protected 2 Percent of the Ocean

Illustration for article titled Weve Only Really Protected 2 Percent of the Ocean
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The year 2020 is rapidly approaching, and with it comes a deadline for ocean protection.


Over 100 countries have agreed to the Aichi Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity, including Target 11, which calls for countries to protect 10% of their coastal and marine territory by creating Marine Protected Areas. A new paper shows that we’re even farther away from that goal than we thought. Some organizations have claimed that 7% of the ocean is protected, showing significant progress towards the goal of protecting 10% by 2020. This report concludes that in fact, only 2% of the ocean is currently strongly or fully protected, compared with more than 15% of land area.

The discrepancy comes from some governments and advocacy groups listing some areas as protected when they really shouldn’t count. “In the rush to achieve their 10% targets, many nations are counting as protected areas that might only have been announced as intended for protection in the future, but are not yet protected,” Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a Distinguished University Professor at Oregon State University and former NOAA administrator who was a co-author on this new study, told Earther. “We believe an area should not be labeled as ‘protected’ until it actually is protected. That would be like announcing ‘I plan to lose 20 pounds,’ and immediately counting that goal as achieved.”


Additionally, some places that are only partially protected are being counted.

“Many countries are also counting as protected areas that are actually fishery management areas,” Lubchenco said. “This is akin to calling a tree plantation a protected park on land. It may serve an important purpose—production of timber or pulp—but it is not designed to protect natural habitats or biodiversity.”

Lubchenco said there’s a lot of research showing that highly or fully protected areas lead to a number of beneficial outcomes, while lightly protected areas, “simply do not have the full range of outcomes or the strength of outcomes compared to highly/fully protected areas.”


Marine protected areas are sometimes presented as a radical idea, but this solution has existed on land for a long time. “Most people understand the importance of parks on land, which we call green parks,” Lubchenco said. “We need blue parks as well—highly and fully protected areas in the ocean.”

In the U.S., MPAs include national marine sanctuaries, national estuarine research reserves, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and state areas. They span a range of habitats, including open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes, according to NOAA.


When properly implemented, marine protected areas can be a powerful tool for conservation, according to Angelo O’Connor Villagomez, an officer with Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy who was not involved with this study.

“Marine protected areas have been demonstrated to lead to increases in fish numbers, sizes, biomass, and biodiversity,” Villagomez, an officer with Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy who was not involved with this study, told Earther.


Villagomez said that the primary focus of these protected areas needs to be biodiversity conservation.

“Areas that have goals besides the conservation of biodiversity, such as sustainable fishing, are better described as fisheries management areas (FMAs). These areas are also incredibly important, but they are profoundly different from protected areas,” he said.


These protected areas are also unevenly distributed, with some enormous marine protected areas accounting for large parts of some countries’ total while several important habitats are totally unprotected. The current MPAs can be visualized using the Atlas of Marine Protected Areas, a free online mapping tool.

Illustration for article titled Weve Only Really Protected 2 Percent of the Ocean
Graphic: MPAtlas

“This study highlights the challenge we face as the global community pushes to meet the goal of protecting 10% of our oceans by 2020,” said Beth Pike, a conservation scientist with the Marine Conservation Institute who runs the Atlas of Marine Protected Areas.

Aichi target’s 10% protection goal is much less than other goals, including a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature proposal calling for 30% protection.


“For the first time in history, humans are technologically capable of fishing every corner of the seven seas, and at nearly every depth,” Villagomez said. “This gives us the moral obligation to ensure we are using the whole ocean in a sustainable manner, and this includes safeguarding areas that are in need of protection with marine reserves.”

Dr. David Shiffman is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying sustainable shark fisheries in Canada. You can follow him on twitter @WhySharksMatter, where he’s always happy to answer your questions about sharks.


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Joe Patroni

Only 2%? That’s just a drop in the ocean.