Educational Series: Ocean Animals Are in Crisis and Need Protection Now

The 582,578 square miles of ocean and small islands in Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument encompass an area larger than all land-based U.S. national parks combined, providing a refuge for animals from tiny coral polyps to blue whales. The monument’s extensive coral reefs support countless tropical fish and invertebrates, while its underwater seamounts are home to unique ecosystems that still have yet to be fully explored by scientists. Threatened and endangered species in the protected area include green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and the extremely rare Laysan duck.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is a particularly significant example of what are often referred to as Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. While most marine scientists and conservationists agree that MPAs must play an important role in protecting ocean life, only a tiny fraction of the seas have received the degree of protection afforded to Papahānaumokuākea. At a time when ocean ecosystems and the species they support are under threat as never before, the debate over MPAs couldn’t be more urgent.

The term “Marine Protected Area” can actually be misleading, as most MPAs are not fully protected from exploitation. While all are subject to some restrictions on human activity–and most are protected from industries like mining and oil drilling–fishing and various kinds of recreation may still be allowed. The most strictly protected MPAs are marine reserves, places where commercial fishing and all other forms of large-scale resource extraction are usually banned. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is effectively a marine reserve where ocean and island life can exist unperturbed.

According to Greenpeace, “The best way to truly defend our oceans is to protect significant portions of them from exploitation. Networks of protected areas [such as marine reserves] can provide safe refuges for migrating marine species and protected zones for vulnerable habitats that support many species and a complex food web.” Groups like Greenpeace have made the establishment of marine reserves a major priority, and in recent years have seen major victories with the creation of new reserves in several countries. However, today less than 10% of the world’s ocean area sits inside any type of MPA, with under 2% falling inside a marine reserve. For endangered ocean wildlife this lack of protection represents an existential threat.

To be sure, MPAs and marine reserves are not a cure-all for the oceans. Some of the biggest threats to marine ecosystems–such as climate change, ocean acidification, and plastic pollution–wreak havoc even in areas where more direct forms of human interference are banned. However, this does not lessen the importance of protected areas. For example, ecosystems that aren’t subjected to the additional pressures of fishing are likely to be more resilient to at least some impacts of climate change. If paired with other efforts like action to curb carbon pollution and rein in plastic waste, properly managed MPAs could play a crucial role in securing a future for ocean wildlife of all kinds.

The idea behind MPAs is simple: if large parts of the oceans are protected from some or all forms of human interference, animals within those areas will be able to replenish their numbers in an undisturbed habitat. Theoretically, marine reserves could also benefit nearby fisheries by allowing fish stocks to recover and “spill over” into areas where fishing is still allowed. Much of the effectiveness of a reserve or other MPA depends on the details of how it is managed, though. For example, some MPAs are basically “paper parks,” officially protected but with few resources to actually enforce rules banning fishing or other resource extraction.

Protected areas established with participation and buy-in from nearby communities are much more likely to succeed for the long term. MPAs need to be managed in a way that locals feel supports their interests, not just those of large conservation groups, and coastal communities in many countries are taking protection of their marine resources into their own hands. A 2014 study by researchers from the University of York found that almost half the MPAs in the Western Indian Ocean are “locally managed marine areas,” falling under the jurisdiction of nearby communities rather than national governments. In countries like Madagascar and Tanzania, these locally managed areas are helping to conserve ocean species in a way that benefits locals.

National governments and conservation groups can also engage with affected communities to improve the management of MPAs and marine reserves. The expansion of Papahānaumokuākea National Monument to its current vast size came after a long process of consultation between Hawaii lawmakers, local interest groups, and the federal government. Originally established by President George W. Bush in 2006, the area of Papahānaumokuākea was more than quadrupled by President Barack Obama ten years later in 2016.

When it comes to new marine reserves, 2016 was something of a banner year. Papahānaumokuākea National Monument was the largest such reserve anywhere in the world at the time of its expansion, but it didn’t hold that title for long. A few months later, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources–an international governing body–created a marine reserve encompassing 600,000 square miles in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. As a result, thousands of emperor and Adélie penguins, minke whales, and other ocean animals now have a safe refuge in the Southern Ocean.

Under the Trump administration, the establishment of new marine reserves in U.S. waters came to a halt. Not only did President Trump break with his most recent predecessors by declining to establish new protected areas; his administration has taken steps to abolish protections for existing reserves like Papahānaumokuākea and re-open them to commercial fishing. However, this hasn’t stopped other countries from making progress in the absence of U.S. leadership.

Chile, a country with a long coastline whose economy relies heavily on the fishing industry, has designated 43% of its territorial waters as protected areas. The South American nation’s more than two dozen MPAs include the Diego Ramírez-Drake Passage Marine Park, established in 2019, a 55,749 square mile reserve that supports species like gray-headed and black-browed albatrosses and macaroni and chinstrap penguins. Another country that has taken recent action to vastly expand protected areas is the island nation of Seychelles. In March 2020, Seychelles’ president announced the creation of 13 new MPAs covering 154,000 square miles of coral reefs and other ocean habitat. Approximately half of these MPAs qualify as reserves where commercial fishing is banned.

Despite such recent strides toward conservation of marine life, we still have a very long way to go. Greenpeace advocates protecting 30% of the world’s oceans within marine reserves by the year 2030, a goal that is in line with what scientists say is necessary to prevent the mass extinction of sea life. With less than 2% of marine habitats currently receiving such protections, it is clear much work remains to be done. Securing a safe future for the oceans’ intricate web of life will take hard work from governments, nonprofits, and ordinary people all over the world. It may not be easy; but with so much at stake, the imperative for action couldn’t be clearer.

Photo credit: Carol

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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