Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Experts say: In the case for marine protection, the science begs for accelerated decision-making

Only 1.6% of our global ocean is strongly or fully protected. We need to move more quickly on ocean protection. Image via

The Earth is over 70% ocean, but our efforts to preserve our blue planet lag far behind terrestrial protections. Former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and fellow Oregon State University researcher Kirsten Grorud-Colvert published a paper in Science last week acknowledging recent global progress in ocean conservation but emphasizing the need to do much more.

Various nations and international organizations have established targets to increase the amount of coastal and marine protected areas; however, as the authors note, “these targets employ a loose definition of ‘protection.’” Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert break ‘protection’ down into three classes: lightly protected, strongly protected, and fully protected. According to the paper, only 1.6% of our ocean is strongly protected (no commercial activity allowed) or fully protected (no extractive activities, commercial or recreational, allowed). Only 3.5% has any protection at all. This number seems quite far from the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) goal to see 10% of coastal and marine areas protected by 2020.

So why are we so far from our goal? Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert say, “Although the science of MPAs is mature and extensive, political discussions are frequently disconnected from that knowledge, and resistance from resource extractors is often intense.”

In an attempt to remedy this disconnect and provide support in the case for ocean protection, the authors provide seven important scientific findings:

  1. Fully protected areas provide greater ecological benefits and help promote healthy fisheries in other areas.
  2. Protecting a range of habitats is beneficial to marine species throughout their life cycles.
  3. Well-thought out, connected reserves protect species and also allow for extractive activity such as fishing between them.
  4. Constructive input from other users can usually improve protection outcomes.
  5. Large, carefully placed reserves that consider habitat and species biodiversity respond better to environmental changes and are likely to be more resilient to the effects of climate change.
  6. Full protection increases economic benefits.
  7. Reserves add to our science- and ecosystem-based toolbox for protecting ocean ecosystems.

Need we say more?

Further trying to connect the science with decision-making, the authors offer six policy recommendations for implementing marine reserves. Their number one recommendation is:

“Embrace Options. MPAs have been implemented using myriad top-down (politically mandated) and bottom-up (citizen-driven) approaches. Both are needed to achieve adequate protection.”

Even though progress is slow, recent commitments, such as those made at Our Ocean 2015 in Chile, prove that greater ocean protection is a global priority. We have a handful of implementation approaches readily available to make this a reality. The ocean is an extremely valuable resource, and we must not limit our options to protect it. As the authors conclude:

“An accelerated pace of protection will be needed for the ocean to provide the full range of benefits people want and need.”

You can find the remaining five policy recommendations, as well as the full paper here.


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