One of the Best Ways We Are Helping the Ocean’s Ecosystem Thrive
By Hannah Minnigan
Climate change is finally becoming a concept most people understand. But are we perfect in our efforts to fight it? Definitely not.
While we’re far from protecting our planet and our oceans the way we need to, we’re making some exciting progress.
New methods to fight climate change and a deeper understanding of this crisis are now guiding us. We’re beginning to see meaningful recovery and change in our oceans. The addition of marine protected areas is bringing new life (literally!) to our ocean and its ecosystems.
What are Marine Protected Areas?
A marine protected area (MPA) is an area of the ocean protected from harmful activities. Activities like overfishing, mining, and offshore drilling are destroying precious ecosystems.
But not all MPAs are the same — the level and size of protection vary.
Some protected areas are “no-take”. This means you cannot remove anything from the area. Regardless of commercial or personal reasons, everything must stay put. These are often called marine reserves. Some do allow recreational fishing.
Other marine protected areas have little to no enforced protection. Some of them even allow commercial fishing, underwater mining, and drilling.
How Does a Protected Area Help Ocean Conservation?
Marine protected areas are a crucial tool in ocean conservation. Over the last 15 years, creating and studying MPAs, we’re seeing positive change. Ecosystems damaged by climate change and human activity have healed.
But marine conservation is only possible if we protect the environment and ecosystems.
Marine protected areas improve:
● Fish biomass– the amount of life in a given space
● Organism size– bigger fish have more eggs and healthier eggs
● Diversity– protection for endangered species and ecosystems
● Resilience– ability to recover from climate change or natural disasters
● Fishing in spillover areas– areas around MPAs have more fish to catch
MPAs also provide a good reference for future studies. A marine protected area provides an untouched, normal ecosystem. This is helpful to compare with a damaged ecosystem.
Who Designates Marine Protected Areas?
Any level of government can form marine protected areas. They can be international, national, or state-designated.
There are two main categories:
1. Exclusive economic zone (EEZ)– all waters within 200 nautical miles of national land.
2. Areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ)– any water outside the 200-mile radius.
ABNJs are much harder to establish and enforce. Why?
To track and enforce ABNJs gets complicated since they’re in such remote locations. They’re also complicated in legal terms to form and maintain. It requires the coordination of many international governments.
Setting Goals for Marine Protected Environments
There are many roadblocks when it comes to creating effective MPAs. Protected areas need proper staffing, focused enforcement, and significant size to be productive.
Many fisheries argue that creating more MPAs will hurt their businesses beyond repair. Yet, exciting studies have already shown alternative data.
An extra 5% of marine protected areas could provide stability for fisheries. They would see the volume of their catch grow by at least 20%.
Working towards change is impossible if you don’t establish goals. Let’s take a look at some of the goals for MPAs on all levels.
An Aggressive Goal– 30 x 30
In 2004, The Convention on Biological Diversity created the first international goal. This trail-blazing environmental goal aimed to protect 10% of the earth’s ocean by 2012.
Unfortunately, this was re-evaluated close to 2012 and pushed to 2020. Often referred to as 10×20, this goal was still quite ambitious and we missed it by about 2.5%.
We have currently protected 7.65% of our oceans.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s still a lot of protection.
But we aren’t slowing down. Government officials worldwide now agree we need to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030.
Protecting Our One Ocean
The nations must work together for our ocean. It’s the only way to establish an effective system of protected areas. We all share the responsibility of saving our ocean. We depend on our ocean in more ways than we even know yet.
The stats on waters outside of national territory are encouraging in the last few years.
Since 2016, we’ve protected 1.18% of our high seas (or ABNJ).
This may sound like a minuscule number. But 61% of the world’s ocean waters are outside national jurisdiction…so 1.18% is a lot more than you realize.
Prioritizing these high seas MUST become a central part of our goals for MPAs.
Deep ocean ecosystems are important to our survival as humans. They play a major role in how the earth is self-managing climate change by absorbing heat and carbon.
How Far We’ve Come
Though we have a lot of work to do, we have made significant progress in protecting our ocean so it can thrive. Scientists studying MPAs are gaining support and recognition.
They know now how important these life-saving sanctuaries are for us all.
MPAs Have Grown on All Levels
Since the first international agreement in 2004, we have protected 7.65% of our total water. This is a promising number if you consider the global teamwork needed to reach these goals.
Even with a global goal, many countries and states also set their own goals for protected areas. These goals range from 10% to as much as 30%. This means that MPAs are gaining recognition as a real option to help our oceans recover.
When we care about ocean conservation in our territories, caring for the planet as a whole is a no brainer.
One world, one ocean. It’s all connected.
Coral Reef Findings Are Even More Proof That MPAs Heal Ecosystems
In recent years, mainstream media has shown the devastating effects of coral bleaching. Warm waters due to climate change almost wiped out the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
These warm waters are threatening entire ecosystems. Ecosystems full of unique and important creatures maintaining our ocean’s food chain.
Past studies claimed marine protected areas did not impact coral reefs. But recently, the National Geographic Society helped fund a new study to debunk this. The study found that young coral density increased by 62% in protected marine areas!
Reducing fishing means fish can reproduce and are around to eat more. What do they eat? Many eat harmful seaweed that threatens young coral trying to develop.
When corals thrive, the entire ecosystem benefits. It bounces back much quicker after disastrous events like coral bleachings and hurricanes.
Education Is Key to Saving Ocean Ecosystems
Thanks to the research of scientists and environmentalists we are learning what makes a marine protected area successful.
A few things we’ve learned:
● MPAs need to be large to be effective.
● If they cannot be large, they need to be part of a network of other MPAs.
● Protected areas need management and enforcement.
● No-take designated MPAs see the most recovery in ecosystems.
● We must come together globally to fight the deterioration of our ocean.
● We need to focus on several critical areas of the ocean that lack protection.
Where Are We Now?
This year the world has had lots of dramatic change. From the presidential election to the worldwide pandemic. It all affects the health of our ocean — and where it lands on our list of priorities.
So is ocean conservation truly a priority now?
Our new president would say yes.
Biden Promises Swift Action on Protecting Our Ocean
“A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear”
– President Biden
President Biden provides a wave of hope in a time of desperate need for our environment. His plans for climate change action are among the most extensive ever proposed. Especially in a presidential campaign.
In the first week of office, Biden signed quite a few executive orders. He even signed one that restored an important MPA. He restored protection of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. This was a devastating blow when Trump lifted regulations in June of 2020.
It’s a major win for the ecosystems in the North Eastern United States. Fisheries were invading this space and hurting natural habitats and resources.
Biden has also established several critical and immediate changes:
● Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement.
● Renewing a hold on offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
● Canceling the Keystone XL pipeline project.
As a huge supporter of the 30×30 protection goal, Biden has promised to follow science. He vows to make climate change one of his biggest priorities in office.
Biden intends to rally international leaders to cut emissions even more aggressively than under the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The President will host the Climate Leadership Summit in late April in Washington, D.C.
How the Pandemic Has Changed Our Ocean
As you can imagine, a worldwide pandemic has had both positive and negative impacts on our ocean. It depends what you focus on.
In a panic, Americans turned to extreme waste. Single-use gloves and masks made of wasteful materials were widely used. This has been devastating to environmentalists who have been fighting plastic pollution.
Marine protected areas often depend on tourism-related fees and taxes to function. They use this money to regulate and enforce MPAs. Without proper funding, they don’t have enough staff, and areas are not protected.
Budgets like these often get cut by the government in times of emergency. The pandemic was no exception.
On the flip side, the virus put the fishing industry on hold. This has allowed parts of the ocean to flourish undisturbed.
It’s too early to determine exactly how helpful these brief pauses have actually been, but we’re hopeful. What we do know is that history repeats itself.
During WWII, many boats could not venture out due to threats from submarines and mines. Fisheries suffered, but it relieved the pressure on the fish population. It replenished itself.
How You Can Help Our Ocean Heal
The most important thing you can do as a citizen who cares for the environment is to be conscious. Educate yourself on climate change and the global crisis of ocean health.
These struggles should position us to be the ones who heal our oceans. We can be the voice, the generation that takes action. Ocean conservation will not continue without loud voices and active participants.
So how can you help in tangible ways? Here are a few ways to contribute:
● Donate to Ocean Blue Project or another organization working with ocean conservation.
● Only buy sustainably-caught seafood or eat plant-based food.
● Contact your local government representatives about the importance of marine protected areas.
● Respect ocean wildlife when you interact with it.
● Use less plastic in your everyday life.
Together we can heal our ocean and restore it to its purest form. Share this blog with a friend or family member who needs to know about marine protected areas.
Knowledge is power. And knowledge creates motivation to change. Let’s speak up for our one world ocean.
Author Bio: Hannah lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband. She has always spent lots of time on the beach and in the ocean, especially growing up. She loves yoga, sunshine and being outdoors.