The debate over inshore vs. offshore MPAs: Are we wasting time arguing over this?

Blogger picture

By anonymous

There is a spirited debate in the global marine conservation community: Should we focus protection efforts on inshore and threatened ecosystems, many of which are approaching a point of no return, or offshore and intact ecosystems under little or no immediate threat?

Some individuals argue that protecting a large, faraway area will allow a government to tick and flick the Aichi targets for a global system of protected areas by 2020 and claim that much has been achieved while turning a blind eye to continuing deterioration close to shore. They fear that governments facing hard economic times will find excuses not to invest financially and politically in the tough decisions that are required for progress close to home. They fear, understandably, that inshore protection proposals will be overlooked because they’re too hard.

Offshore proponents argue that we should protect largely intact areas offshore (the low hanging fruit) now, whilst we still can. Yet protecting these healthy and intact reserves has been called “meaningless” and “a solution desperately seeking a problem”. Presumably protection for coastal reserves, at risk from overfishing and land-based runoff, is “meaningful” and “a real solution”.

This kind of debate is happening elsewhere in the conservation community: Should we invest in protecting the most critically endangered species, or should we maximize our leverage by investing limited conservation dollars and political resources where they are most likely to deliver more bang for the buck – i.e., in species that have a greater chance of survival?

It’s not surprising that we are having debates at this point in human history when people are impacting every corner of the globe and austerity is the catch cry of western governments. So what is the answer: inshore first, then offshore, or vice versa? Some claim it’s simply too easy to assert that we need both now. Their argument is that we all know governments seldom deliver the perfect result in one blow.

Because neither side is about to beat a retreat, there really is no option but to pursue both strategies in the public square. Most of the small marine reserve proposals are in countries where there is no opportunity to create large fully protected areas. Globally, there are only a handful of large marine reserve proposals. There are hundreds if not thousands of proposals for smaller marine reserves and the vast majority of the funding is going to develop networks of coastal reserves. We need both – and we really need protection for the big prize that has proven very problematic: the high seas.

The push to establish large-scale reserves is part of a deeply-rooted conservation tradition that goes back 150 years: the radical American idea of wilderness. It’s not surprising that The Pew Charitable Trusts, a US-based NGO, is leading the movement to secure very large, fully-protected reserves in the ocean. Lest anyone think this is part of some modern neo-colonial push, let’s not forget that America established the first national park in the world – often called the best idea America ever had. The world has long recognized the brilliance and necessity of the national park concept. On land, wilderness conservation is well-established in countries that are still lucky enough to have large tracts of unspoilt country left. For some countries, their only wilderness is now in the sea.

In the ocean, wilderness is not a well-developed concept. Despite having an IUCN category of its own – 1b – it is rarely used. The guidelines applying the IUCN categories to marine protected areas state that the primary objective of IUCN1b in the marine environment is to protect the long-term ecological integrity of natural areas that are undisturbed by significant human activity. The wisdom of that position is hard to argue against, especially as there are now so few remote and intact areas left. Protect them now, whilst we still can – whilst they are still in good condition, and the costs of protection are low.

Another objective of 1b is to enable indigenous communities to maintain their traditional wilderness-based lifestyle and customs. Yet another is to provide for public access at levels and of a type that will maintain the wilderness qualities of the area for present and future generations. 1b protection recognises that people have spiritual and cultural needs for solitude, peace and nature.

Wilderness conservation is based on a very different value set compared to inshore conservation. Arguments around the latter tend to focus on the need to rebuild fish stocks and other species and to rehabilitate disturbed ecosystems. Wilderness conservation is steeped in human values that make it contentious. It is about preservation, when our dominant paradigm is sustainable development. Yet wilderness fits the ocean perfectly, given its vast, wild and awesome character.

In the other corner are the coastal or nearshore areas reserve networks. There is no need to set out the arguments on this website for reserves in heavily fished areas. The need is great, the task is urgent, and the costs – financial and political – are likely to be high. It is challenging but critically necessary work.

Where governments such as the UK have failed to respond adequately to the science, despite extensive planning and stakeholder consultation, marine advocates and their supporters in the community must hold the government to account, rather than turn on ocean wilderness advocates. Gaining government support for the protection of intensively used inshore ecosystems will always be harder than for those offshore ecosystems under minimal pressure. That is the nature of the beast. The costs of establishing inshore networks are much higher as is the political cost of winning government support.

Rather than assuming government support for large offshore reserves will exhaust the government’s will for marine conservation, inshore advocates will be better served by recognising that the achievement of offshore reserves yields governments the public credit that will encourage them to make greater efforts on all marine reserves, big and small, coastal and offshore. Viewed this way, by 2020, both inshore and offshore marine ecosystems are more likely to be fully protected. We, the global community of marine advocates, have a responsibility to be pragmatic and strategic as well as idealistic – for it is only by getting results that today's ideals will become tomorrow's realities.

The anonymous 'Message in a Bottle' blog allows members of the ocean planning/management community to get things off their chest and make points they ordinarily might not make in public. The writer will constantly change. We will not allow personal attacks but otherwise are open-minded. If you would like to submit an entry to Message in a Bottle, please jdavis [at] (Subject: Message%20in%20a%20Bottle) (click here).