Nature and Biodiversity

Time to protect the ocean: what is an 'MPA' and why do we need them? 

Adelie penguins stand atop ice near the French station at Dumont d’Urville in East Antarctica January 22, 2010. Russia and the Ukraine on November 1, 2013 again scuttled plans to create the world's largest ocean sanctuary in Antarctica, pristine waters rich in energy and species such as whales, penguins and vast stocks of fish, an environmentalist group said. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources wound up a week-long meeting in Hobart, Australia, considering proposals for two "marine protected areas" aimed at conserving the ocean wilderness from fishing, drilling for oil and other industrial interests. Picture taken January 22, 2010. To match story ANTARCTIC-ENVIRONMENT/  REUTERS/Pauline Askin  (ANTARCTICA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT POLITICS ANIMALS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E9B11JXC01

Marine protected areas are part of a global strategy to save the ocean. Image: REUTERS/Pauline Askin

Jane Lubchenco
Deputy Director, Climate and the Environment, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
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Restoring ocean life

This article is part of: Virtual Ocean Dialogues

What is ocean protection? When does a marine area officially count as “protected”? What’s the difference between a marine reserve and a marine park? How much of the global ocean is protected?

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All good questions – but inconsistency and diverging positions over the answers can obscure progress and distract attention away from the urgent goal of actually conserving and restoring marine biodiversity. With the clock ticking for meeting Sustainable Development Goal target 14.5 to protect 10% of marine areas by the end of 2020, and marine protected areas (MPAs) an essential tool for securing a sustainable, equitable post-COVID-19 recovery, the time has come to agree upon a common language of ocean protection and get everyone on the same page.

A new Graphic Guide to MPAs aims to do just that – with a welcome injection of comic relief.

Graphic Guide to MPAs
Graphic Guide to MPAs

Launched this week to coincide with the Virtual Ocean Dialogues deep dive panel on Ocean Protection, the comic-style booklet uses visual storytelling to clarify when biodiversity protection really begins and an MPA can be counted towards the global target. So, while it may take us back to the nautical Adventures of Tintin, the story has a timely and critical purpose: to end the confusion over different types and stages of ocean protection that is interfering with clear accounting and decisions. This clarity will be vital for integrating marine protection into post-COVID-19 recovery plans.

The President of the Pacific Island state of Palau, Tommy Remengesau Jr, made a powerful call for such a “blue recovery” at the Virtual Ocean Dialogues when he revealed how the closed borders that are keeping his country safe from the pandemic have also cut tourism revenues from 40% of GDP to zero. This is a cruel twist of fate just months after the opening of the Palau Marine Sanctuary turned a record-breaking 80% of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) into a fully protected, no-take MPA. The tiny nation hopes its outsized contribution to SDG target 14.5 will drive greater global ambition and ocean solidarity as we emerge from the health crisis. And no one knows better than Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Palau that the world cannot “build back better” without a thriving ocean to provide millions of people with food and jobs, stabilize our climate, protect our shores, and maintain the very fabric of life for island and coastal communities.

Momentum to protect the ocean has never been stronger. MPAs are not a panacea but they are a powerful, largely untapped, and increasingly attractive tool for ocean protection. Realizing their potential demands greater transparency and consistency in how we interpret and track marine protection globally.

Not all MPAs are created equal

Today, 7.4% of the global ocean is officially classified as protected, nudging us within reach of the 10% target set out in SDG 14. But this total encompasses a wide range of MPA types with an equally wide range of objectives and expectations. Some allow no extractive activities at all while others permit almost all types of extraction. Some are well established and enforced, others exist only on paper. Treating them all the same distorts reality, can create false expectations, and even create a roadblock to expanding protection on the water.

Graphic Guide to MPAs
Not all MPAs are created equal Image: Graphic Guide to MPAs

The MPA Guide behind the new comic introduces two metrics to help refine and unify the way we talk about MPAs: stage of establishment and level of protection. The four stages of establishment identified cover the journey from the initial announcement of intent to create an MPA to the reality of an actively managed protected area. This often takes years and the process can be blown off course by changes in government or lack of resources that leave some potential MPAs languishing in limbo as “paper parks” in name only. The four levels of protection distinguish MPAs on the basis of the extent of extraction and other adverse impacts they allow, from the “minimally protected” to the “fully protected” MPAs where no extractive or destructive activities of any kind are permitted. This classification system creates 16 distinct categories, helping decisions makers easily identify the MPA best suited to their goals for both biodiversity and their economy.

Using the guide will also help manage expectations from different MPAs depending on their level and stage of protection – and prevent the tendency to ‘count our chickens before they’re hatched’ by counting MPAs in the official tally long before they are safeguarding any biodiversity in the water.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala highlighted the importance of differentiating between levels of protection at the Virtual Ocean Dialogues when he used the example of Mexico’s fully protected Cabo Pulmo no-take reserve. In just 10 years it transformed from a marine desert to a kaleidoscope of colour, attracting divers and other tourists as well as boosting fish stocks in the surrounding zones.

But, despite evidence of these multiple benefits, just 2% of the global ocean is fully protected and able to achieve the deepest conservation and social benefits generated by the recovery of previously exploited species, greater resilience and carbon storage potential, and new jobs that rely on a healthy ocean. There is huge scope for expansion.

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Visualizing a clear blue recovery

With the current global ocean protection target expiring in 2020, new goals are being negotiated as part of the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework. There are strong calls from scientists and many governments to commit to protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030. Strategically placed, highly or fully protected and implemented MPAs covering at least 30% of the ocean is the minimum considered necessary for building resilience to ocean heating and acidification, and creating space for biodiversity and key fish stocks to replenish.

This bold acceleration of ocean protection is now all the more imperative as a foundation stone of a sustainable, inclusive green/blue recovery. The Graphic Guide to MPAs can steer us towards more and better marine conservation by visualizing clear parameters for celebrating and tracking progress towards global ocean protection goals that benefit us all.

Jane Lubchenco is a Friend of Ocean Action

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