Global MPAs - latest update

A new book provides the latest stats on how much of the oceans are currently protected and we find out whether global targets have been met.
07 November 2010

Interview with 

Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy


A new report provides the latest stats on how much of the oceans are currently protected and we find out whether global targets have been met.

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Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy

New book 
Global Ocean Protection: Current Trends and Future Opportunities (PDF)

Mark - This latest study has come up with a new global total for marine protected areas. Just over 5800 Marine Protected Areas worldwide. They cover just over 4.2 million square km of the world's oceans. Those sorts of figures are pretty hard to vizualise. It is a very large area. But actually, the world's oceans are so vast that it really is still more like a drop in the ocean. It's about 1.2% of the total ocean surface.

Helen - 1.2%, that doesn't sound like a lot. But then 8 years ago there were plans to protect quite a lot more than that by now. 

Mark - Targets were set by the international community, and really these are set by governments, and they are meant to be incentives and drivers for change. And it was recognised that we needed to do a lot more, particularly in the oceans. It was also recognised that we had a long way to go in the oceans. But the target was set to try and establish 10% of the oceans as being effectively managed for conservation. So we've only got to 1.2%, so we're way off target. 

It's a little bit even more complex than that. They talked about representative protection. So in other words they didn't want just an overall 10% figure which you could put all in one place. They wanted us to capture all the different aspects of marine biodiversity from the tropics to the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Helen - And so where have our marine protection efforts been focused so far?Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Mark - Perhaps not suprising, the bulk of the effort has been very close to shore. If you confine yourself to looking just at the coastal strip, a narrow 2km belt around the world's coastlines, we've actually met the target and exceeded it. We're up to 12% globally. But as you look off shore, you look across the continental shelf the number drops off rapidly, only 4.3% of the shallo waters out to 200m depth. And of course as you look into the offshore waters, off shelf and into the high seas, the areas that are owned by no particular country as it were, the figure drops pretty close to zero. 

Really we've got this very land-centric view of the oceans still in the way we've been declaring Marine Protected Areas. And the high seas jump out at us as being a real hole in this effort to secure a future for the oceans.

Helen - Another thing that jumps out of the data is that it looks like we've now got a handful of really enormous MPAs. Now sure, that has to be a good thing, doesn it?

Mark - It's a great thing and we mustn't do that down. We list in this report, the 24 sites that are the size of Belgium or larger. They're pretty whopping sites. Sites like the Great Barrier Reef. And they have probably been the major contributor to the acceleration of ocean protection. But what we're missing in that kind of view is the small sites that are near to people.

Marine Protected Areas aren't just for nature but people stand to benefit hugely from Marine Protected Areas. One of the stories that's stood out over the years is a little island in the Philippines called Apo Island where the local community have set aside a chunk of their coral reef with no fishing whatsoever. And what they found is that their overall fish catch ahs gone up and up. And that's simply the result of protecting this little investment of fish, larger fish which breed well and export both adults and larvae to the surrounding reefs.

So, let's try and get these MPAs not only in the wilderness, in the last great ocean spaces. But as we move them closer to home, closer to where people live and depend on the sea, we're going to start I think getting much more buy-in, much more enthusiasm for Marine Protected Areas and I hope the thing will snowball, and people will learn from what's going on next door and want more of the action themselves.

Helen - And talking of enthusiasm to set up protected areas. It seems the developed world is actually lagging behind the developing world, which is really not what you would expect given the amount of resources that presumably richer countries have to devote to things like marine conservation?

Mark - Both from a resources perspective and from a lot of the science has been done by the wealthier nations that have funds for doing the research, but the people putting it into practice have been mostly based in the tropics. It seems to be a huge struggle to get nearly as far in the temperate regions of the world. We in the west could learn from the developing countries in the tropics. We need to have these examples on the ground that people can learn from. It's an uphill struggle to get the first MPA in because no-one quite trusts that they'll really do what we say they'll do. But once you start getting a few and people are beginning to benefit, then I think the whole thing should be  a runaway success.

Helen - Let's hope so. Now, even if we reached that 10% target that we've been talking about, what about the other 90% of the oceans outside protected areas? Is protecting one tenth of the oceans really going to be enough to keep them healthy?

Mark - 10% clearly isn't enough. What we've got to do is think more holistically about the entire ocean surface. In Negoya they've kind of agreed to keep the 10% target but extend the deadline out to 2020, which could sound like a bit of a failure, but given that there were some efforts by some countries to actually drop that target completely or drop it down, one country was talking about dropping it down to only 6%, I think keeping the target is probably a sensible thing to do.

We really must remember though that target is a waypoint not an end point. We need to think about the broader ocean space which we use and the end pint must be 100% oceans targeted for sensible joined up management. That means getting the fisheries agencies talking to the planning agencies talking to the conservation folk. And I think from a general public point of view it means a much larger constituency really needs to start thinking of the ocean as being theirs, it belongs to us all. We all really need to be concerned about it and feel a part of it.


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