EVERYONE can take small steps to conserve the ocean. Whether it’s purchasing sustainable seafood or using less plastic, little decisions accumulate over time to make a big difference for the ocean.
But why go little when you can go big?
For countries that care about the ocean, going big means protecting thousands of square kilometers of ocean through the creation of marine protected areas.
Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are zones of the ocean set aside for conservation, and can be thought of as marine national parks. They have emerged as a vital tool for conservationists, and are used by governments to protect marine ecosystems from overfishing or resource extraction. MPAs have been shown to significantly increase fish numbers and ecosystem health by giving exploited environments a chance to recover from human disturbances.
Not too long ago, the total area of oceans covered by MPAs was staggeringly low, with less than 1% of the ocean’s surface protected. In 2010, the United Nations set a goal for MPAs to cover 10% of the ocean by 2020, with coverage of 30% of the ocean as the ultimate goal.
This year has seen huge gains in the expansion of marine protected areas. Nearly 3 million square kilometers of ocean have been designated as MPAs in 2015, an area the size of India. Nearly all of these gains have come from a handful of countries, which set aside significant chunks of territory for conservation in the form of large marine reserves.
From economic powerhouses to tiny island nations, four countries led the world in MPA creation in 2015. The countries are listed according to the total area of oceans protected this year, from least to greatest.
4. Palau – 500,000 km2
Palau has proven that small countries can do big things. Despite having a population of only 20,000, the small island nation controls a vast EEZ (exclusive economic zone) full of incredible marine diversity, including 1,300 species of fish. Historically, Palauans have managed their fisheries by closing important spawning grounds to fishing periodically, a process they call bul. Still, in recent years international fishing pressures have impacted Palau’s fish stocks. To protect their heritage and their livelihood, Palauans closed 80% of their EEZ to any fishing or extraction, creating a no-take marine reserve larger than California in the process.
To afford the technology required to patrol and enforce the new marine reserve’s boundaries, Palau’s small government reached out to the public for help. After launching a crowd funding campaign called Stand with Palau, the government was able to raise $53,000 for maintenance of the reserve. It remains to be seen how far that money will go, but the strategy for raising funds could be easily duplicated by other small nations looking to make a splash in marine conservation.
3. New Zealand – 620,000 km2
In September, New Zealand announced the creation of a vast marine reserve north of it’s mainland to protect a region known as the Kermadec Islands. The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will protect a chain of volcanic islands, underwater seamounts, and the second deepest marine trench on Earth. Covering twice as much area as New Zealand’s entire landmass, the reserve singlehandedly expands the country’s share of protected ocean from 0.5% to 15.5% of its EEZ.
Like the MPA in Palau, the New Zealand MPA is scheduled to become a marine reserve, and will be entirely closed to mining and fishing. The New Zealand fishing industry expressed resentment over the announcement by Prime Minister John Key, arguing the decision was hasty and not backed by science. While the region is not currently overfished, the MPA will ensure that habitats used by whales, seals, turtles, and over 150 species of fish, many of which are endemic to the region, remain pristine. Final approval of the MPA will be subject to parliamentary approval in 2016.
2. United Kingdom – 834,000 km2
After creating the Chagos Marine Protected Area in 2012, the UK upped the ante in 2015 and created the largest contiguous marine reserve in the world. The new MPA encompasses the Pitcairn Islands, an overseas British territory in the South Pacific with only 56 inhabitants. At 2,000 km from the nearest island and 14,000 km from the UK, the Pitcairn’s isolation complicates enforcement of the new fishing restrictions. Patrolling the remote area with Her Majesty’s Navy would be expensive and impractical, so the UK has decided to enforce its laws remotely.
Using satellite monitoring, the government will track fishing vessels that enter the MPA to detect signs of illegal fishing. The technology, called Virtual Watch Room and funded by the PEW Charitable Trusts, is capable of tracking fishing vessels in real time. It’s algorithms rely on satellite data, fishing vessel databases, fisheries data, and MPA boundaries to detect patterns of illegal fishing, allowing authorities to take appropriate action before offenders even reach port with their catch. This video shows the technology in action and explains the cutting edge process more in depth.
1. Chile – 1,030,000 km2
While the UK announced the largest single MPA, Chile has moved to protect the largest overall area this year, announcing the protection of over one million square kilometers of ocean this October in 3 separate MPAs. The first and largest MPA, roughly the size of New Zealand’s Kermadec Sanctuary, encompasses the waters surrounding Easter Island. The Rapa Nui people of Easter Island have struggled to protect their rapidly disappearing marine resources from exploitation by the international commercial fleet. Although the Easter Island Marine Park will ban industrial fishing throughout all of Easter Island’s waters, subsistence fishing by the Rapa Nui people will be allowed in a specific section of the park. Still, much of the MPA will remain closed to any harvesting whatsoever to provide fish stocks with a sanctuary to encourage recovery and population growth. Chile, who administers the island, will enforce the fishing regulations with its navy.
Chile announced plans to designate two other MPAs this October. The Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park, which covers Chile’s EEZ around two small islands between Easter Island and the Chilean mainland, will cover nearly 300,000 km2 and is set to be implemented by the end of 2015. A 100,000 km2 network of MPAs around the southern tip of Patagonia was also announced, and will be fully zoned and enforced by 2020.
Honorable Mention: United States
The United States didn’t designate any massive marine reserves in 2015, but US diplomacy made many of the MPAs listed above possible. Furthermore, the United States submitted a joint proposal this year along with New Zealand to protect a section of the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica. The proposed MPA would be larger than the Palau, Kermadec, and Easter Island MPAs combined, covering a massive area of unexploited habitat. The Antarctic MPA requires international agreement, and is currently blocked by opposition from Russia. Aside from the Antarctic MPA, the United States and Cuba are currently collaborating on plans for a network of MPAs in the Gulf of Mexico to protect coral reefs.
What YOU can do
Thanks to substantial MPA proposals in 2015 as well as 2014 and 2012, the world is currently on track to meet the UN 2020 target for 10% MPA coverage. Including both proposed and existing MPAs, 6.1% of the ocean will been set aside for conservation under current proposals. The new MPAs created by Palau, New Zealand, the UK, and Chile in 2015 alone cover 0.8% of the entire ocean.
Despite increased progress in recent years, MPA coverage across the entire ocean remains inadequate. Sustained governmental initiative and public support for marine conservation will be necessary to reach the UN 2020 target for marine protected areas. This is where you come in.
The Netflix documentary Mission Blue is a great resource, both to learn more about MPAs and to get involved. The picturesque documentary follows the life of scientist and ocean activist Sylvia Earle and details her Mission Blue: to establish a global network of marine protected areas. The network will consist of a series of Hope Spots: biological significant areas of the ocean that, if protected, will act as a ray of hope for widespread marine conservation.
The documentary encourages you to do the following:
- Explore – click here to explore a database of Hope Spots. Learn about the many unique ecosystems of the ocean and how each one could benefit from protection.
- Nominate – protecting the oceans is a collaborative effort. Click here to nominate a marine ecosystem to become a Hope Spot. Describe the ecosystem, its location, and it’s value to you and the environment, and the Mission Blue team will consider adding it to their list.
- Share – let others know why Hope Spots are important.
By getting involved, showing your support for a region of the ocean, and sharing what you’ve learned about marine conservation with others, you contribute to a positive future for the ocean and the planet.
- Watch Mission Blue on Netflix
- What is the difference between a Marine Protected Area and a Marine Reserve?
- VIDEO: Satellite Monitoring’s Unique Potential to help end Illegal Fishing
- More ways to get involved with MPA conservation