Why are we so keen to establish more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)?
MPAs help the ocean to withstand the impacts of climate change, which is raising its temperature and acidity, as well as helping it to recover from overfishing and marine pollution. A healthy ocean is ecologically really complex, with a huge range of species and lots of individuals. This makes the ecosystem more stable and helps it to resist being worn down by damaging activities, and to recover from stress.
There are loads of different types of MPAs, all with different restrictions on what can take place within them. So some will not allow any fishing, mining or other destructive activity at all. Some MPAs will allow some activities seasonally and then close areas for the rest of the year, and some will manage human activities a bit, but let them continue as long as they do not affect a particular feature or species that the area is designed to protect.
What do you have to think about when planning an MPA?
There are some big questions when you’re planning an MPA. Firstly, where will you put it and what are you trying to protect? There’s no point designating a small area of ocean to protect something which swims long distances, like whales, dolphins and tuna, as they will just swim straight in and out of the area and will barely be protected by it at all. It’s better to look at where these species gather to breed and feed at certain times of year and to focus efforts there. That way you are more likely to protect more individuals more effectively.
Then you’ve got to think about the size, and the number. Studies have shown that it’s better to protect more areas in a network, rather than to try to designate one massive area. This is because the sea is such a complex system, and species move around from area to area, but also up and down from the surface to the seabed. Designating a network of MPAs means there is a better chance of protecting more species effectively, as they swim or drift around during their lifetimes. The number of MPAs needed to be effective is a difficult question, but it’s safe to say that right now designating too many is not a concern. Less than 1% of the ocean is fully protected today, and ideally we need to increase that to 30% by 2030, so the more the merrier.
You’ve also got to think about who you will affect by designating this MPA, and who is going to manage it. Will the management be led more by the government or by local people? Where will the people who used to fish in that area go now? How do you balance the economic and welfare needs of those who depend on the ocean with its conservation needs? All very complex questions, and the answers will depend on many factors including the location (which country’s waters it falls into, if at all), how much fishing happens there and how many people depend on the area for their livelihood.
After all this, it’s a good idea to make people aware of it, otherwise they won’t know how it will affect them. Educational campaigns go hand in hand with MPA designations, because the more you tell people about why it’s important, the more likely they will be to support the idea and to stick to the rules.
We’ve designated more than 2.5 million square kilometres of ocean in the last year, and that is a great step forward. Now we need to designate more, and once we have it’s just as important to make sure they are being managed well and doing their job properly. A healthy ocean is crucial for a healthy climate and MPAs can be a powerful tool to ensure that the ocean can continue to support us in the future.