While we're on the topic of large, no-take MPAs...

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By Elizabeth M. De Santo, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Franklin & Marshall College

Following the recent online debate between Professors Roberts and Hilborn and the announcement of the Pitcairn MPA at IMPAC3 in Marseille this week, many questions remain about why we are conserving the oceans in a “grab as much as you can” approach, as well as whether or not the current path we’re on will actually achieve long-term conservation goals, and how we can do a better job. Stop for a moment and consider the fact that 22 of the world’s 28 largest MPAs have been designated since 2000, and 19 of these were designated just since 2007 (not including Pitcairn or the Cook Islands and New Caledonia).

Even with the addition of these enormous no-take areas, we are still crawling towards the 10% MPA target set by the Convention on Biological Diversity and agreed to by the international community. According to the IUCN and UNEP WCMC, in 2010 global MPA coverage was at 1.17% of the global ocean surface, an increase of over 60% of the area recorded as protected since 2007, and 150% since 2003. In 2012 global MPA coverage grew to 2.3%, and at the IMPAC3 meeting this past week, the new MPA figure released to the world was 2.8%. Surely this incremental uphill-boulder-pushing progress towards the 10% target shows that targets, albeit helpful for motivating action, are not having the intended effect? In large part, the progress observed is due to the designation of geographically vast no-take areas on the order of hundreds of thousands if not millions of square kilometers.

At the risk of reopening debates on “whither targets” – I do think we should question the rationality of a target-driven system that leads to large, unenforceable areas that are distant from where anthropogenic influences are having the worst effects on the marine environment. This is a wilderness approach, not a management approach. Whether that’s what the international community intends, is a separate question. By setting aside remote areas under their jurisdiction, governments are able to move closer to the target without addressing how to balance conservation and human use closer to home. Was this the intent of a target-driven system? Or was it to protect 10-30% of the oceans in perpetuity and based on the best science-driven approaches to ensure we set aside the most important areas to help the oceans withstand anthropogenic-driven change?

The scientific community agrees that in principle, large protected areas perform better at maintaining ecosystem resilience, and in an era of climate change we are all concerned about preserving the integrity of functioning ecosystems. But this principle only holds if the areas are actually enforced. What we see in practice with large no-take areas is a tremendous challenge. The fact remains that among the prized “world’s largest MPAs”, illegal fishing has been observed in several of them (e.g. Chagos, the Galapagos and Motu Motiro Hiva), and who knows what’s been going on in others. Of course, MPA managers are discussing this and trying to find better ways forward to promote good practice in large no-take area management, but since we’re not there yet, should we still be designating these enormous, unenforced areas in a race against the target clock?

The effects of climate change on the ocean are frightening, no doubt. We also live in an increasingly plugged-in, media-driven environment, in which you can subscribe to hundreds of news sources that blast dread-inducing headlines at you every day, if you choose to. I do, and I often feel quite overwhelmed by the challenges ahead of us, as I’m sure many of you do as well. However the solution to climate-induced ocean destruction is not protected areas alone. We need to use this tool in concert with better approaches to managing land-based pollution sources, fishing pressure, carbon emissions, and a myriad of anthropogenic uses of the ocean. The NGO community, with the best intentions, has arguably pushed a target-driven agenda forward and nation states have latched on. Policy-makers love targets, they help set agendas and give you a goal to strive towards. However we risk seriously undermining our own long-term conservation goals.

At recent CCAMLR meetings, Russia and the Ukraine have been arguing against proposals for MPAs, and/or proposing time-limited solutions. If we continue to implement MPAs that don’t do their job properly or that give the impression that countries can get away with a NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) approach to marine conservation, how can we expect the international community to go on supporting MPAs as a key tool for long-term conservation, especially when countries see conservation “leaders” like the UK and US close off overseas territories as “easy wins”. This issue won’t be resolved easily or soon, but let’s take a moment to step back, look at what we’ve achieved, and ask ourselves whether this is how and where we want to go.

For more on this topic, see my recent paper ​“Missing MPA targets: how the push for quantity over quality undermines sustainability and social justice” in the Journal of Environmental Management (link to copyright-free version of article if you don’t have journal access).