A new paper co-authored by Memorial University’s Dr Rodolphe Devillers and an international group of researchers argues that established global marine protected areas are too often a case of all show with no substance and do not adequately protect the most vulnerable areas of the world’s oceans.
“There is a big pressure internationally to expand global MPA coverage from around 3 % of the oceans to 10 %, resulting in a race from countries to protect large and often unused portions of their territorial waters for a minimal political cost,” said Mr. Devillers. “Marine protected areas are the cornerstone of marine conservation, but we are asking whether picking low-hanging fruit really makes a difference in the long-term, or if smaller areas currently under threat should be protected before, or at the same time as, those larger areas that are relatively inaccessible and therefore less used by people.
“We need to stop measuring conservation success in terms of square kilometres,” he added. “The real measure of conservation progress, on land or in the sea, is how much biodiversity we save from threatening processes. Metrics such as square kilometres or percentages of jurisdictions are notoriously unreliable in telling us about the true purpose of protected areas.”
The paper, Reinventing residual reserves in the sea: are we favouring ease of establishment over need for protection?, is the first comprehensive study to compare where MPAs are placed in relation to human extractive activities, such as fishing, and oil and gas.
Dr Devillers and his colleagues argue that the global pattern of MPAs appears to favour residual places – those with the least promise for commercial uses. Protection is therefore not provided to species and ecosystems that are most susceptible to threatening processes. Consequently – and conveniently – this residual approach tends to keep financial and political costs to a minimum.
An example the study looks at in more detail is the MPAs announced in November 2012 by the previous Australian government. The government maintained the initiative would protect more than a third of Australia’s marine waters for the future. Beyond the impressive number, a more detailed analysis of the distribution of those MPAs clearly shows bias in protection, with a strong will from the government to minimise the impact on existing fishing and oil and gas exploration and extraction, arguably making little difference to conservation. Australia’s new MPAs are biased towards deeper waters that are under relatively minor threat, leaving other areas vulnerable to commercial fishing and the extraction of oil and gas. Ecosystems and species in these more vulnerable areas are still in decline.
“The newly elected Australian government is already reviewing the 2012 MPAS because it thinks the price is too high for the fishing industry,” Dr. Devillers said. “Our team criticises those MPAs because we think the price paid is too low to protect marine ecosystems. Too often we are merely putting band-aids on ecosystems that are in critical, if not terminal, condition.”
The authors recommend a simple four-step framework of questions for planners and policy-makers to help reverse the emerging residual tendency of MPAs and to maximise conservation effectiveness, protecting against what they call “perverse outcomes of the least-cost approach.”
“In addition to being of value to humans, marine ecosystems oceans have a right to be protected,” said Dr Devillers. “However, there is a major cost to society for protecting marine biodiversity. By not paying that cost, we are standing by while our natural ecosystems degrade.”