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Global marine protected area networks not up to the job

Published on: 30th December, 2015 | Conservation
Photo credit: “The performance and potential of protected areas”, Nature, 2014
Over the last decade almost 10 million square km of new marine protected areas have been created globally, but these areas don’t always overlap with the ranges of vulnerable species.

 Close to 200 countries have committed to the Convention on Biological Diversity target of placing at least 10% of marine and coastal environments under some form of protection by 2020. Marine protected areas can range from zones where human activity is completely banned, through to regions of mixed uses regulated to minimise impacts on marine environments, such as seasonal fisheries closures.

Figure 1: Percentage of marine species with 0% (dark red), 0–2% (pink), 2–5% (dark blue), 5–10% (light blue), and >10% (green) of their range overlapping with marine protected areas (IUCN I-IV). Credit: Modified from Figure 1 in ‘Shortfalls in the global protected area network at representing marine biodiversity’ by Carissa Klein and colleagues.

However, just like diving experiences, it’s about the quality, not just the quantity of these protected areas that matters. This is a complex argument to take to governments who have already made large advances in marine conservation, and who are rushing to meet the 10% target in only a few years time (we’re currently up to about 7%).

A group of top marine scientists have delved into the World Database on Protected Areas to determine how well existing protected areas overlap with the ranges of marine species. This ‘gap analysis’ revealed that less than 3% of species have more than a tenth of their range covered by the best types of protected areas.

They also found that over 99% of the least well protected species are rarely found within exclusive economic zones (EEZs), the territorial waters extending up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from a country’s coastline. This represents an enormous problem, because these zones are the easiest for countries to monitor, patrol and regulate, and species outside protected areas are vulnerable to damaging practices like offshore drilling, trawling and excessive fishing.

What can be done? Given where the least well protected species are known to roam, strategic decisions in the waters around the USA, Canada, Brazil and Antarctica could dramatically improve the overall coverage of the global protected area network.

Conservation scientists have developed sophisticated modelling tools to identify the most effective sites for biodiversity conservation at the least financial and social cost (good for government coffers and local marine industries). The data is on the table, now governments need to make sound decisions about where to focus their efforts to produce the best outcomes for marine species.

The original research article ‘Shortfalls in the global protected area network at representing marine biodiversity’, published in the top journal Nature by Carissa Klein and colleagues, is available here.

Images reproduced from James Watson and colleagues’ article The performance and potential of protected areas in Nature, 2014


Emma McIntosh

TDI Adv. Nitrox & Deco. Procedures. IANTD Cavern Certified. PhD Candidate in Ecology