Protecting the world’s oceans and its resources could be coming closer to reality as countries gather this week in China for the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity.

Nations are expected to start keeping promises to protect 30% of the world’s oceans, including implementing or pledging support for the implementation of more Marine Protected Areas around the world.

The conference, to be held in Kunming, China starting Monday, follows a collective pledge from more than 100 countries to protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. Climate change was a major theme during the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, and the goal remains lofty though conservationists remain hopeful.

The sun sets on the open ocean in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, one part of the Pacific that is protected by restrictions on fishing and other uses. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

The global Marine Protected Area Atlas that covers some 18,000 MPAs shows just 2.7% of the ocean is fully or highly protected from fishing impacts. A previous goal of protecting 10% by 2020 was missed.

And though it was expected that some nations would up their MPA coverage, management was still an issue, according to University of Hawaii marine researcher Alan Friedlander.

Friedlander was among a group of marine experts who called for more effective management strategies — a blueprint for future MPA management — as there was a broad range of interpretations and “not all MPAs are created equal.”

Management was of equal importance to designation, he said.

“It’s a big difference between what’s strongly protected and what’s declared protected,” said Friedlander. “We really need to have strong protection if the goal is biodiversity.”

Sectioning off areas of the ocean has typically riled fisheries organizations, though studies show that MPA implementation could actually have a positive impact on their catch. Protected areas lead to bigger fish, which have exponential impacts on populations. One study published last year suggested a 5% increase in protected areas would lead to a 20% increase in future catches. Conversely, remaining on the current track would have magnified impacts on biological diversity throughout the world’s oceans.

“It seems a little counterintuitive that by setting areas aside that you’re going to have better fishing,” said Friedlander.

But the reality was that the bigger the fish, the more it would spawn, and as fishing boats often linger outside protected areas, they would be getting bigger fish and more money.

Designating an MPA does not necessarily mean closing it off to all activities, extractive or otherwise. Rather it should be considered in the same way that land zoning regulations work, says Aulani Wilhelm, senior vice president for Oceans at Conservation International.

In the past, MPAs had been put in place to manage tourism or conflicts between various parties. Others might be for restorative purposes, or simply to conserve already healthy areas.

“What’s hard is when a community or country creates and has intentions for one thing, and has expectations of something else,” said Wilhelm.

Wilhem, who played a pivotal role in the implementation of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, believes that when implementing MPAs, the goals needed to be set and management strategies should be tailored to them.

Coral reefs such as this one in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument provide places for fish to reproduce and sustain the vitality of their populations around Hawaii. UNESCO via Wikimedia Commons

International Waters

New MPAs could be announced during this week’s conference, said Frieldander.

“There are some places that are up-and-coming. The CBD conference is going to make a strong commitment,” he said.

Much of the talk over MPAs has focused on Exclusive Economic Zones, the waters that extend 200 miles out from a country and are considered under that country’s control. But negotiations are also underway for the protection of international waters.

During the UN General Assembly, several Pacific nations appealed to the global community for action on climate change. While the nations called for global powers to accelerate their climate responses, some are also leading the way in their own work.

Masha Kalinina, senior international conservation officer at The Pew Trusts, said that despite expressions of support, monetary or otherwise, the global powers should be taking more of a leadership role — especially the U.S. — in addition to domestic commitments. There were notable exceptions in South America, such as Argentina, and several in Southern Africa, added Kalinina.

“It’s great to see Pacific island countries really speak up for marine protection,” she said. “Even though we don’t see global leadership, we see these local leaders coming forward with messages of especially increased marine protections.”

Pacific Leadership

Three Pacific nations have made notable commitments to protecting and conserving their waters.

While Palau’s waters are entirely off-limits to outside extractive industries, The Cook Islands has a multi-use MPA covering all 1.18 million miles of its exclusive economic zone (with notable exception for deep-sea mining) and Niue now protects 40% or roughly 49,000 square miles of its waters.

Eugene Joseph, executive director of the Conservation Society of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, said community-based MPA management started in 2001.

With 14 protected areas, the last to be implemented was in 2010. Each has a focus such as on a particular species or spawning area.

Marine Protected Areas have existed for a long time in the Pacific, designed to conserve marine resources long before the climate crisis. Wikimedia Commons

But the work has not been without criticism. Fishermen are concerned over their lack of short term efficacy and the immediate ramifications for people’s incomes. And despite the constant monitoring that Joseph’s society undertook, it was not always enough to quell those concerns.

“You cannot just put something in and see the result in a day or overnight,” he said. “There are some negative factors that do come in, and it plays a huge, critical impact to the management of (MPAs).”

Fisheries are important to island nations, which often rely upon the income from leasing their waters to foreign fishing vessels.

But opponents of MPAs, primarily fishing organizations, are coming to realize the importance of considering protections for their industry’s sustainability.

The Micronesia Conservation Trust, which helps fund conservation work in Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, has been considering more novel ideas, like diverting portions of tuna licensing fees into funding conservation efforts.

“I think that the problem has been sort of mediated now that everybody understands that … for us to sustain fisheries here we would need some conservation work and that it’s in the best interest of everybody,” said William Koska, MCT executive director.

Likewise, in Niue or Palau, there have been various fees implemented for tourism or alternative and sustainable funding models to fill the gaps left by extractive marine industries.

Coopting Cooperation

Wilhelm’s experience working with MPAs around the world has led her to believe cooperation is the only way forward. Areas managed by communities in the Pacific, or even Papahanaumokuakea, require different strategies to get people to buy in.

There are projects already implemented around the world, and notably in the Pacific Ocean, and many cases to learn from.

“It’s really an open-source area, and (that is) really the only way we are going to get to 30%,” she said. “It’s going to require commitments of countries to work though international or regional bodies to get it done.”

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