Protecting Ocean Ecosystems
Marine Reserves are Climate Reserves
Riding on a small ferry to an island off the coast of Maine, the captain suddenly slows the boat. He comes over the loudspeaker and speaks in a quiet voice. “On the left of the boat, next to the rocks is an Atlantic Puffin,” he says. Craning our necks, we look out on the sparkling blue water and there next to the seaweed covered rocks is a puffin. Bobbing in the water, the bird looks just like it does on the cereal box.
Puffins had nearly disappeared from the Gulf of Maine until restoration efforts in the late 1900s successfully restored colonies on the Maine islands. In the past, the greatest threat to puffins was hunting, but now they face a new threat: global climate change. The Gulf of Maine is warming at a faster rate than almost any other ocean ecosystem on Earth. This has negative consequences for puffins and the 3,000 other marine species who rely on the Gulf waters for food and habitat.
Scientists have been researching ways to slow climate change or at least mitigate its impacts. One new study shows that marine reserves allow ecosystems to adapt and be resilient to the major predicted impacts of climate change: acidification, sea-level rise, the intensification of storms, shifts in species distribution, and decreased productivity and oxygen availability.
Marine reserves are a type of marine protected area where all extractive activities are prohibited but may still allow minimal amounts of low-impact fishing. Prohibited human activities can include fishing, bottom trawling, fracking, and drilling. Currently, 3.5 percent of the ocean has some level of protection, with just 1.6 percent fully protected. International scientists agree that by 2030 we need to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean.
According to the study, marine reserves can help combat climate change impacts in a couple of different ways.
One of the biggest threats to the ocean is acidification. Ocean acidification occurs when excess carbon dioxide enters the water from the air. The carbon dioxide changes the water’s chemistry, making it more acidic. Marine reserves can help the ocean’s resiliency to acidification by capturing and storing carbon in protected wetlands and by creating a stronger buffer against carbon in marine reserves offshore.
Wetlands in particular are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for hundreds of years. Wetlands can also provide refuge, breeding grounds, and nursery hotspots for many types of organisms. Additionally, protected wetlands can help mitigate two other impacts of climate change – sea level rise and intensification of storms – by providing an important physical buffer.
In offshore marine reserves, ocean acidification is combated by increasing fish stocks. Teleost fish (also known as bony fish) produce a chemical which acts as a buffer and counteracts some of the added carbon. This is not enough to stop ocean acidification – but the more fish in the ocean, the greater the buffer. Currently, there are fewer fish in the ocean due to overfishing and human activities that hurt fish habitat and breeding grounds. Past research shows that well-managed marine reserves increase fish populations and promote habitat recovery.
Helping Species Adapt
The new study also demonstrates how marine reserves help species adapt to climate change. One of the biggest challenges that climate change poses to species is that habitats are changing at a faster rate than species have the ability to adapt. Marine reserves can help this challenge by increasing gene flow and providing refuge.
Typically, populations within marine reserves experience growth which creates more gene variation within the population. A larger gene pool increases the chance of adaptations that would benefit the population. Most supporters of protected areas advocate for a network of marine reserves that connect different populations. This network would help facilitate gene flow.
As the climate changes many organisms find themselves needing to migrate to find better conditions. Marine reserves can act as a stepping stone for species on the move due to rising water temperatures. For organisms that cannot move, like coral, marine reserves allow for possible refuge.
For the Future
Creating marine reserves requires stakeholder participation and it can be difficult to facilitate different interest groups. However, the environmental health benefits are huge. Marine reserves are low technology and cost effective. Positive effects from creating more well-managed marine reserves would be seen from the local to global scale.
Marine reserves are by no means the sole solution to climate change. Ultimately, as a society, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the creation of more well-managed marine reserves can help with climate resiliency and adaptation. Especially for the puffins, the lobster, and all of us in the Gulf of Maine who rely on a healthy ocean, the creation of more protected spaces is something that we must focus on – now.