Let’s Talk About Marine Protected Areas

According to the latest data from MPAtlas only 2.12% of the world’s oceans are currently protected. This surface accounts for 11.333 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the latest significant addition was announced by the British government earlier this year: the area around Pitcairn Islands, which happens to be the largest marine reserve in the world.

In 1988 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at its 17th General Assembly, adopted the following definition of MPAs:

“Any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.”

Currently there are seven types of compliant MPAs including: Strict nature reserve, Wilderness area, National park (marine park), Natural monuments or features, Habitat/species management area, Protected seascape and Sustainable use of resources.

More marine reserves are needed

More marine reserves are needed

For years scientists have repeatedly shown that the establishment of MPAs results in the recovery of biodiversity and fish biomass, the protection from natural disasters and the reduction in poverty.

In 2009, a scientific paper by Lester et al. has shown evidence that the implementation of no-take marine reserves can counterattack the negative effects of overfishing, resulting in the rehabilitation of biomass and species richness.

Coral reefs and mangroves are natural barriers against natural disasters, including the force of waves. Mangroves protect the coast from erosion and they capture carbon from the atmosphere. The implementation of MPAs in coastal areas is essential both for the marine ecosystems and the 3.5 billion people who inhabit them.

Coral reef

A healthy coral reef next to a mangrove forest

Recently it has been discovered that mangroves in Hurricane Hole in St. John are harboring at least 30 species of corals. The corals have sought the protection of the mangrove habitat in order to escape elevated temperatures and an increasing ocean acidification. Due to massive coral bleaching events around the world, more species may flee the unshaded shallow waters and hide under mangrove forests where they can thrive. The US Geological Survey (USGS) reported that:

 “Boulder brain corals, for example, were found in abundance under the mangroves and were healthy, while many of those in unshaded areas a short distance away were bleaching.”

Boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia natans)

MPAs can greatly boost the economy and it has been shown in a recent analysis commissioned by WWF that increased protection of critical habitats would result in net benefits of between US $490 billion and US $920 billion over the period of 2015-2050.

Despite the massive amount of data that serves as evidence for the benefits of creating more marine protected areas around the globe, there are numerous misconceptions regarding MPAs, including the false assumption that all marine protected areas are no-take or no-fishing zones, when in reality most MPAs are deemed as multiple use conservation areas that allow fishing, diving, boating and swimming. A great deal of criticism comes from tribal communities that live in coastal areas and fully depend on the exploration of marine life and material resources.

Currently there’s an international effort to preserve larger areas of the planetary ocean but I feel these actions are not enough because of the accelerated downfall of marine life and the poisoning of water due to industries, such as oil extraction in many parts of the world. The global economy heavily relies on the oceans and therefore governments should understand better the importance of preserving the marine ecosystems and not take them for granted as if their produce is infinite. Despite our past mistakes, the world keeps forgetting that in the end what we reap is what we sow.

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