In honor of World Oceans Month, this post will feature two short stories about ocean protection and how that protection was almost compromised. First of all, why is there a month dedicated to the world’s oceans? Oceans cover about 70% of our planet and provide vital life support systems for people around the world – they provide wild fish, regulate the global climate, and support ecotourism industries for many nations. Policies to help protect the oceans from overfishing and pollution are in place and growing in their extent. One example of top-down policies which apply to the oceans are Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. MPAs are special places where human activity is restricted, whether it be commercial or local fishing, offshore drilling, or diving.
The world’s first MPA, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, was established in 1903 by President Roosevelt. This was 31 years after the first land-based park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. In recent years, the number of new MPAs and their coverage of the world’s oceans has been increasing. Notably, President Obama recently established the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – the largest MPA in the world. MPAs are diverse entities – some are “no-take” zones, which prohibit all fishing activities. Others are “multiple-use” zones which may allow some fishing, but there are limits on catch and restrictions on the type of gear fishermen can use. MPAs can also place limits on diving for recreation or tourism. Due to these restrictions, marine protected areas have been controversial in some parts of the world. Opposition may come from policy makers or local communities, who claim that a proposed MPA could interfere with tourism or commercial or local fishing.
The benefits of marine protected areas for species have been documented extensively in the literature. A large meta-analysis of MPAs found that species density, biomass, organism size, and diversity on average were higher after the establishment of a park (or inside a park as compared to the outside). A recent update of this meta-analysis found that reserves can be effective even if they are small and regardless of location; it should be noted, however, that effects of reserves on different groupings of species can vary. In addition, MPAs can have positive “spillover” effects. This means that the MPA provides spawning habitat for fish; the fish hatchlings are then able to populate the surrounding area that is not protected and enrich the nearby fisheries.
Are MPAs beneficial for local people? It depends – the impacts are less straightforward and data availability is limited. One study examined changes in human well-being indicators (food security, resource rights, employment, community organization, and income) as a result of establishing a nearby marine protected area. For the most part, food security remained stable or increased. Some local people gained more control over marine resources but about the same proportion lost control. This study shows that more data and research are needed to understand the influence of establishing a marine protected area on local communities and their livelihoods. It suggests that although MPAs are not universally “good” or “bad” for local people, they can be thought of as an opportunity to enhance livelihoods given proper implementation and other supportive policies and practices.
What about the legal support that MPAs need? Are marine protected areas currently threatened by legal changes that would weaken, shrink, or remove them? Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) has been proposed in at least two iconic marine parks, but the most recent information suggests that neither of these proposals has been successful.
1. Marine PADDD averted in Belize – offshore drilling
The most recent marine PADDD story comes from Belize, a small, tropical, coastal country in Central America. Many conservation projects and organizations are interested in Belize – it is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, dwarfed only by the Great Barrier Reef. Despite the Belize Barrier Reef’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a recent proposal to conduct offshore drilling in this location was considered by the government, which would have opened up about 99% of Belize’s jurisdictional waters. Drilling could have affected many protected areas including seven World Heritage sites. After tireless opposition from environmental voices including Oceana, the Belizean government decided to drop the proposal last month. A salient argument against drilling was economic: Belize’s economy and millions of jobs depend on tourism. Research has found that a majority of tourists participate in marine activities during their visit to Belize, and that the value of coral reefs and mangroves in Belize is estimated at $289 million annually. Marine PADDD was successfully avoided in this small coastal nation.
2. Marine PADDD avoided in the Great Barrier Reef – industrial waste
Last year, the Australian government issued a proposal to open up the Great Barrier Reef – the largest barrier reef in the world – to allow dumping of dredge spoil. Dredge spoil is produced during large-scale construction activities, usually related to ports. The Australian Government recognizes the impacts of dredging on their website:
“Dredging and material placement (also called spoil dumping) have relatively well-known potential impacts such as degradation of water quality, changes to hydrodynamics, smothering of benthic fauna and flora, damage to marine wildlife through the dredge mechanism, translocation of species and removal of habitat.”
This issue was raised to high-profile status within Australia and the international conservation community. The impending World Parks Congress in 2014 was held in Sydney; all eyes were watching the Australian government. Would they retract this proposal? With the pressure on, the Environment Minister of Australia announced that the reef would be safe from dredge spoil. In March 2015, the BBC reported that dredge spoil dumping will be banned in the Great Barrier Reef.
These marine conservation stories offer some hope. Both iconic protected areas faced proposed downgrades which would have weakened their regulations but neither passed. An interesting feature that these stories have in common: the international news media and conservation community raised the profile of the proposals and garnered lots of attention. The involvement of civil society helped to reverse the course of these proposed PADDD events.
Happy World Oceans Month!
#WorldOceansMonth #OceanOptimism #HopeSpots