Marine protected areas – Why do we need them?

09 February 2010 | Fact sheet

Oceans cover almost three-quarters of the earth's surface and play a crucial role in tackling climate change. Why are they so important, what threats do they face and how can we protect them?

Oceans: their importance and the threats that they face.

Oceans cover more than 70% of our planet. They store more than 90% of the world’s carbon dioxide, and remove 30% of the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere.

Oceans include some of the most fragile ecosystems and species on Earth, but are continuously threatened by human activity. More than 60% of the population now lives on or near a coastline and 80% of tourism is concentrated in coastal areas. Close to 25% of fishing in developing countries is carried out near a coral reef and more than 70% of the world’s fisheries are in danger.

Exploited by overfishing and subject to pollution and oil or gas extraction, marine resources have been seriously affected in many regions.

What are protected areas and how can they help?

One of the most effective means of protecting marine and coastal biodiversity is through the establishment and effective management of marine protected areas. According to IUCN’s definition, a protected area “is a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”

Marine protected areas, which often include barrier ecosystems, such as coral reefs or mangroves, can play an important role in protecting us from the effects of natural disasters. Coral reefs reduce the speed of waves, while mangroves are effective windbreaks that help to reduce soil erosion. Ample evidence was found that healthy coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, considerably reduced the impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and protected those living in the area.

Mangroves also absorb pollutants and are a natural filter for water, stopping a great deal of pollution from reaching the sea.

Marine protected areas are key to replenishing biodiversity and nourishing the growing human population. Studies have shown that “no take” marine protected areas, not only double the amount of fish but also their size, in a very short period of time. They also serve as safe breeding grounds for key threatened species, such as whales and marine turtles, whilst protecting a variety of marine ecosystems and the rich biodiversity they sustain.

By protecting key ecosystems, such as coral reefs, marine protected areas also generate opportunities for tourism, which in turn brings jobs and income. Unfortunately, local populations rarely benefit from tourism revenue as most of it is held by big companies. Creating more community-managed marine protected areas would help bring greater benefit to the local population.

What challenges do we face?

Despite the importance of marine protected areas for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, only 1% of the ocean is protected. The goal of the 1992 World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity to establish a global, representative system of marine protected areas by 2012 is far from being met.

Protected area managers face many challenges from lack of government funding and support to antagonism from local communities. With good communication and awareness programmes, this trend could be reversed. Involving local population in the protection of marine areas, could offer them sustainable livelihoods and economic benefits from fishing and tourism.