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Marine Protected Areas Vital to Restoring Biodiversity

February 23, 2012

  • In some protected areas, tons of fish per square kilometer quadrupled in five to 10 years.
  • Fishermen in Solomon Islands and Kenya doubled their income after five years of protecting areas.
  • Australia's Great Barrier Reef attracts 2 million visitors annually, generating $2.8 billion for the economy.

The U.S., Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, and island states across the Pacific and Caribbean are among those advancing calls for more marine environments to be placed under legal protection, providing sanctuary for threatened species, habitats and ecosystems.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) restrict human activities in defined areas and are seen as offering the most comprehensive protection to coastal and shoreline ecosystems. Organizations experienced in establishing MPAs say the evidence demonstrates their effectiveness in enabling depleted fish stocks and ecosystems to recover and replenish. They also stress the importance of involving local communities in the implementation, to make sure populations are not cut off from resources they have historically depended on for their livelihoods. Local involvement can reinforce systems of property rights and improve monitoring and surveillance.

Today, less than two percent of the world’s oceans are under some form of protection, and many existing protected areas are not managed effectively. By contrast, 12 percent of the earth’s land mass is under protection – through national parks or reserves.

Oceans advocates call for expanding protection more aggressively. Sylvia Earle, a senior ocean researcher associated with the National Geographic Society, has called for a chain of protected areas equaling at least 10 percent of the oceans, the level that the UN Convention on Biodiversity calls for by the year 2020.

'Enlightened Self-Interest'

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is creating a network of 54 priority areas for protection in the Gulf of California, building on years of collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the Mexican National Council on Protected Areas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and others. The program is designed to bring needed protection to the imperiled vaquita porpoise, as well as strengthen other fishery resources.

WWF facilitated designation of two of the first MPAs in the Mesoamerican Reef—the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize. They also spearheaded a regional reef conservation plan that strengthened the management of protected areas, fisheries and species conservation.

Conservation International (CI) has also worked with partners to create sanctuaries covering a combined area of 57 million hectares, about the size of Madagascar. Sebastian Troeng, CI vice president, says more governments and private sector actors are seeing marine protected areas as a necessary investment.

To protect 10 percent, the international community needs to accelerate the marine protection movement. CI has found that in some protected areas, the tons of fish per square kilometer can more than quadruple in five to ten years. Experiences vary from one ecosystem to another, however.

In the Pacific, CI, along with The Nature Conservancy and other partners is working with a group of six countries-- Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste -- on the Coral Triangle Initiative, which helps the countries create new Marine Protected Areas, and strengthen the management of existing ones. WWF, active in the initiative, established the first transboundary MPA for sea turtles, located between Malaysia and the Philippines. The program also advances a larger plan for seascape management. “This is actually a good model for scaling up,” says Troeng. “We’re seeing countries coming together in enlightened self-interest.”

Prior to the Coral Triangle Initiative, five Micronesian governments, with the support of The Nature Conservancy, set out to conserve at least 30 percent of near-shore marine resources and 20 percent of terrestrial resources by 2020. The area would cover more than 5 percent of the Pacific Ocean, providing protection to 61 percent of the world coral species.

With a focus on fighting poverty, the World Bank balances protection of marine habitats and ecosystems with protection of livelihoods. Typically, marine protection entails a mix of regimens intended to preserve income streams: “No-Take” areas bar all extractive activity, though tourism and scientific research might be allowed; other managed areas might allow marine tourism and research as well as subsistence fishing. Beyond these managed areas, there might be buffer zones where restricted commercial use would be allowed, often fishing within rights-based structures.

Research by the National Geographic Society has found that local fishermen in the Solomon Islands and Kenya saw incomes double after five years of protecting specific areas from all extractive activity. Still, communities often need help to manage the revenue losses that occur when some areas become off-limits to fishing.

Community-Based Management of Coral Reefs in Indonesia

Under the World Bank-supported COREMAP (Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management) program in Indonesia, 358 coastal villages work with local government in community-based management of their coral reefs. Communities have authority to establish and monitor village “No-Take” zones and protect them with support from district offices. These areas are seen as “fish banks” that help replenish depleted stocks.

To offset the No-Take zones, the project began providing credit for alternative livelihoods, and soon, will be supporting eco-enterprises based on coral reef ecosystem services. The most promising of these enterprises will be assisted to push their businesses to commercial scale so that they are in a position to hire workers who have left the fishing sector or been forced to scale back their activities. “Communities want to protect their coral reefs but they also need to make a living,” says Marea Hatziolos, the World Bank’s Senior Coastal and Marine Specialist for East Asia Pacific.

Onereef, a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving coral reefs, links investors to communities who share their conservation ethic but lack the resources to provide adequate protection. In the Onereef program, investors’ funds are used to pay local people to work as conservation managers for the coral reefs. Early results show measurable rehabilitation of the damaged reefs.

Brazil Takes Steps Toward Greater Protection

Brazil’s 9,000 km coastline -- crucial to a 43 million coastal inhabitants along with countless forms of sea life -- faces threats from rapid population growth, fishing, and oil and gas exploration. Yet, less than 2 percent of the marine and coastal expanse falls within any official system of protection.

" Communities want to protect their coral reefs but they also need to make a living. "

Marea Hatziolos

Senior Coastal and Marine Specialist, the World Bank.

Brazil’s National Commission on Biodiversity (CONABIO) set a national target of eventually bringing 10 percent of the marine and coastal zones under protection. With funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and other international donors, the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (FUNBIO) is planning to launch a network of marine and coastal protected areas, joining existing protected areas with newly protected zones, placing at least 5 percent of the total Brazilian marine area under some form of protection.

Petróleo Brasileiro S.A., Petrobras, leader in the Brazilian oil and gas industry will help fund the project with other private companies currently considering a role. Backers of the project say it will help establish biodiversity concerns as a factor in coastal planning, as well as the fishing, tourism and petrochemical sectors.

Benefits Flow

Protected areas provide economic benefits independent of replenishing fish stocks. For example, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia attracts roughly 2 million visitors each year and generates some $2.8 billion annually for the economy.  The United Kingdom and the United States have joined Australia in setting aside vast marine areas as protected reserves. Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest nations in the world, is also investing in protecting marine biodiversity with hopes of building an eco-tourism business for the future.