Study: Marine Protections Fall Behind Land-based Efforts

A new study published in Conservation Letters finds that protection of marine habitats is lagging far behind that of terrestrial areas. While 12 percent of the world's lands are protected, only 4 percent of the world's coastal waters fall within "marine protected areas," a conservation tool used around the world to preserve ocean resources.

"Unfortunately, we found that great swathes of the world's coastal waters are unprotected, meaning coastal livelihoods, incomes, and food supplies are all at risk as fish stocks fall and coastlines erode," said Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy and lead author of the study. "The good news is that marine protected areas can be a powerful tool to ensure that ocean habitats remain healthy and productive for future generations -- but we need to expand and strengthen protection efforts now."

The study examined the protection status for each of the world's varied coastal ecoregions (geographically and scientifically similar areas) but also expanded its vision to the open oceans. Here levels of protection are even less, and the researchers found that only 0.7 percent of all ocean areas fall within protected areas.

At the 2004 Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Malaysia, more than 180 countries committed to protecting 10 percent of their respective oceans and coasts by 2012, and to creating "a global network of comprehensive, representative and effectively managed" marine protected areas (MPAs).

"The year 2008 marks the halfway point to this target, yet we are still far off-course, with great gaps in our efforts and little or no chance of reaching our goal on time," Spalding added. "While there are sparks of hope with many new and exciting marine conservation efforts and a growing list of success stories, world leaders need to prioritize protection of our oceans before it's too late."

Success stories where great advances have been made in marine protection include areas such as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and the Phoenix Islands in the Pacific Ocean. These examples are all large-scale protected areas, but even small protected areas can make a difference, such as the network of protected areas in the waters around many Caribbean Islands which serves as a great model for how countries can protect their oceans, improve fish-catches and tourism income, and provide a more secure environment for future generations.

The study was a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Using a marine classification system of coastal ecoregions (232 distinct ecological regions around the world) developed by The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund and other partners, the study found that:

•Approximately half of all ecoregions have less than one percent of their oceans under MPA coverage, and 21 have no MPAs at all.

•Only 18 percent of the world's ecoregions have MPA coverage greater than 10 percent, including a number of very large MPAs, such as the Great Barrier Reef.

•Temperate areas are not as well protected as tropical areas. Temperate areas include the Northern Atlantic, South America, and Northern Africa, which are host to rare and valuable habitats; including giant kelp forests, oyster reefs, and deep coral communities and which support rich fisheries.

•Tropical areas, such as the Tropical Atlantic Ocean, are benefiting from higher levels of marine protection, especially in the Caribbean, where some fishing communities are now witnessing healthier and more abundant oceans.

•Most existing efforts are concentrated in a narrow coastal belt, within a kilometer of the coast, while further offshore marine protection efforts are minimal. In the high seas, beyond the jurisdiction of individual nations, marine protection remains virtually non-existent.