Oceans cover more than 70% of our planet. They include some of the most fragile ecosystems and species on Earth, but are continuously abused. More than 60% of the human population now lives on or near a coastline and 80% of tourism is concentrated in coastal areas. Exploited by over-fishing and subjected to pollution and oil and gas extraction, marine resources have been seriously affected in many regions.
One of the most effective means for protecting marine and coastal biodiversity is through the establishment and proper management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
IUCN’s definition of a Marine Protected Area is: "Any area of intertidal or sub-tidal 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," (Kelleher, 1999). Marine Protected Areas cover many different types of protection. Some are “no-take zones” that are essential to enable fish stocks to recover while others allow multiple use of their resources.
MPAs protect key ecosystems such as coral reefs. Not only do they act as safe breeding grounds for fish, they also generate tourism, which in turn brings jobs. Unfortunately, most tourism revenues are held by big companies with little benefit going to the local population. Creating more Community Managed MPAs would enhance the flow of benefits to local people.
More than 90% of the world’s carbon dioxide is stored in the oceans, and they remove 30% of the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere. MPAs, which often encompass 'barrier' ecosystems such as coral reefs or mangroves, can also reduce the impact of damage from natural disasters such as hurricanes. Waves are slowed by the reefs while mangroves are effective windbreaks that reduce soil erosion. Examining the destruction caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there was ample evidence that in areas with healthy coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, the human population was protected and the impact of the disaster reduced. Mangroves also absorb pollutants and act as a natural water filter, preventing many pollutants from reaching the sea.
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. Studies have shown that the knock-on effect of “no take” marine protected areas, not only doubles the amount of fish but also their size in a very short period of time. MPAs including in the High Seas, are key to replenishing biodiversity and nourishing the growing human population. They also serve as nurseries for key threatened species including whales and turtles whilst protecting a variety of marine ecosystems and the rich biodiversity they sustain.
But despite the important role of MPAs for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, only 1% of the ocean is protected. The goal of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and of the Convention on Biological Diversity of establishing a global, representative system of MPAs by 2012 is far from being met. Protected Area managers face a wide range of challenges, from lack of governmental funding and support, to antagonism from local communities. With good communication and awareness programmes, this trend could be reversed. Involving the local population in the protection of marine protected areas would help generate sustainable livelihoods through revenue from fishing and tourism.
An effective MPA system is needed to ensure that the oceans recuperate, continue to store carbon dioxide, that fish stocks recover and that coastlines are protected from harsh climatic conditions. It is no longer a technical question but a matter of survival for the planet and humankind.