Countries Falling Behind As World's Oceans Are Still "Vastly Under-Protected": Study

Image: Sam and Ian on Flickr

Though marine conservation is stepping up worldwide, a new study has found that countries still have a relatively long way to go before they meet their commitment to protect 10 percent of their respective waters. Whereas 12 percent of the world's land is protected, only 4 percent of the world's coasts are designated as "marine protected areas" (MPAs) — a term used to describe a holistic and well-connected global network of marine reserves protecting vital coastal habitats. The open oceans fare even worse, with only 0.7 of them falling under protected areas.

"Unfortunately, we found that great swathes of the world's coastal waters are unprotected, meaning coastal livelihoods, incomes and food supplies are all at risk as fish stocks fall and coastlines erode," says Mark Spalding, a senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy and lead author of the study. Some of the other sobering findings include:

  • Approximately half of all ecoregions have less than one percent of their oceans under MPA coverage, and 21 have no MPAs at all.

  • Only 18 percent of the world's ecoregions have MPA coverage greater than 10 percent, including a number of very large MPAs, such as the Great Barrier Reef.

  • Temperate areas are not as well protected as tropical areas. Temperate areas include the Northern Atlantic, South America and Northern Africa, which are host to rare and valuable habitats; including giant kelp forests, oyster reefs and deep coral communities and which support rich fisheries.

  • Tropical areas, such as the Tropical Atlantic Ocean, are benefiting from higher levels of marine protection, especially in the Caribbean, where some fishing communities are now witnessing healthier and more abundant oceans.

  • Most existing efforts are concentrated in a narrow coastal belt, within a kilometre of the coast, while further offshore marine protection efforts are minimal. In the high seas, beyond the jurisdiction of individual nations, marine protection remains virtually non-existent.
  • Other challenges to better marine conservation include rising sea levels, increasingly intense storms linked to climate change, rapidly expanding coastal populations and habitat loss.

    But habitats are not the only thing at stake. Previous studies have found that better marine conservation not only preserves biodiversity in found in mangrove, salt marsh and coral reef ecosystems — but also protects people in terms of mitigating the impact of natural disasters or ensuring their economic means of livelihood.

    In 2004, more than 180 countries signed onto the Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Malaysia, committing to protecting 10 percent of their respective coasts and oceans by 2012 and to creating "a global network of comprehensive, representative and effectively managed" marine protected areas (MPAs).

    "The year 2008 marks the halfway point to this target, yet we are still far off-course, with great gaps in our efforts and little or no chance of reaching our goal on time," laments Spalding. "While there are sparks of hope with many new and exciting marine conservation efforts and a growing list of success stories, world leaders need to prioritize protection of our oceans before it's too late."

    The Nature Conservancy via press release
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