Home Nature The ocean provides — and needs to be protected. Can humanity do both?

The ocean provides — and needs to be protected. Can humanity do both?

by Ohio Digital News

Conservationists had reason to cheer as 2020 dawned.

On January 1, the Pacific island nation of Palau officially closed 80 percent of its territorial waters to fishing, creating one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. 

Three months later, of course, the world changed.

Almost overnight, the COVID pandemic pummeled economies the world over, and Palau was no exception. Short of revenues, the government had a choice: Reopen its waters to lucrative commercial fishing, as other countries had done, or strike some sort of balance between the twin necessities of marine protection and marine production. 

In a bold move, it chose the latter.

Palau’s “Blue Prosperity Plan,” as it was called, launched a process to assess and manage how and where some fishing could be restored, while committing to finding new and sustainable ways of financing conservation.

Even as the pandemic slowly recedes, countries face the same issue as Palau: How to balance protecting ever-more fragile seas while ensuring that the ocean can continue to provide food and livelihoods for billions of people.

As a new article shows, finding a balance has been the exception more than the rule. 

Harsh realities, high tensions

One thing is certain: Protected areas are popular right now.

The global “30 by 30” effort — protect 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030 — has spawned a number of new marine protected areas (MPAs), especially “blue-water” MPAs in large-scale, open ocean areas far from coasts: Nearly 40 such zones have been established in the past two decades, covering 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles). 

Yet the harsh realities of food security and economics are inescapable, and though the vast majority of these MPAs have “mixed use” zoning that assures varying levels of protections and production, difficult trade-offs loom. 

The tension between protection and sustainable production is not new, but in the marine realm, it is particularly fraught: The marine conservation world has largely split into two camps, experts say, with little integration — and even some animosity — between the two.

That has to change, according to a new paper in the journal npj Ocean Sustainability, which highlights critical scientific gaps between the two sides that, if unaddressed, could jeopardize the ocean’s ability to support humanity. 

Who’s paying for this?

The ocean is an economic powerhouse: Commercial tuna fisheries alone contribute more than US$ 40 billion to the global economy every year and provide a disproportionately large percentage of annual revenue for many Pacific island nations.

Protecting the ocean, meanwhile, is not cheap: Marine protected areas can cost on the order of millions of dollars to establish, with annual costs for management and staffing that run into the millions more. Meanwhile, the benefits of MPAs take longer to materialize and may not immediately translate into revenue.

Expecting countries — particularly small developing states — to forgo revenues by closing off fishing “is a hard ask,” acknowledged Jack Kittinger, an expert on marine economies at Conservation International and the paper’s lead author. 

“Marine protected areas have a cost to set up,” he continued. “They have a cost to manage. Then when a country hits a crisis of some kind, it becomes tempting to open those waters to fishing again.”  

Unfortunately, as Kittinger and his co-authors write, the economics and conservation finance options for blue-water MPAs are underdeveloped and poorly understood compared with other sectors of the ocean-based economy. 

“People have been working on integrating sustainable fisheries and coastal MPAs for a long time, and there are a lot more options for financing protection in coastal seas. In the ‘blue-water’ realm, there are fewer options at the moment,” he said.  

Take tourism: Many coastal protected areas draw revenue from visitors. The Galapagos Islands, for example, charge a steep entry fee (which will double this year). Tourists, on the other hand, aren’t lining up to visit open ocean in the middle of the South Pacific. 

How to pay for conservation, then? The article urges further research into the development of bonds and other financial instruments — including but not limited to philanthropy — to keep marine protections afloat. 

Some countries are already getting creative here, including the Pacific island of Niue, which recently launched a financing mechanism it calls the world’s first “ocean conservation commitment” — just one example of how developing countries are innovating to protect their seas.

Where are the fish?

Another gap that the researchers highlight is as big as the sea itself: the differences between marine life along coastlines and life in the open ocean. 

“For decades, the scientific community has been working on coastal environments. We’re behind the curve for the pelagic [open] ocean, which covers most of the planet but is far less understood,” Kittinger said. 

Pelagic species are highly migratory, he noted, with far more variability and dynamism needed to survive in the harsher and deeper environments they live in. Meanwhile, the migration patterns of many pelagic species — especially tuna — are shifting due to climate change, creating more uncertainty over where to restrict fishing. 

As the researchers write, “the number, distribution and size of self-replenishing populations of major targeted migratory fish stocks, including the locations of key spawning and nursery sites, are largely unknown.”

“So if we establish a [pelagic] protected area,” Kittinger said, “but everyone’s on the other side of it catching the tuna and sharks and turtles, then we still have a conservation problem.”

What’s fair is fair

Lastly, the researchers point to a gap in equity.

Collectively, countries in the Global South have designated close to half of all MPAs worldwide, playing an outsized role in protecting the ocean. The benefits of such protection are often shared globally, with these nations effectively subsidizing ocean health for the rest of the world. 

“The disproportionate burden of these protected areas is falling on the Global South, with inadequate investment from the Global North — creating huge equity issues,” Kittinger said. “And the research agenda on that has been pretty thin.”

The global demand for fish, the researchers write, has left developing countries managing pressure from larger and more powerful interests. Unsurprisingly, this has created power mismatches where coastal and island communities don’t always receive a fair share of the benefits of either marine protections or sustainable production — an area where the researchers call for further research and intervention. 

What’s next

One of the biggest hurdles in making blue-water marine protections work might be marine experts themselves, Kittinger says. 

“One of the things I’ve learned is that there are just some folks, and maybe even a lot of folks in our sector, on both sides of this debate, that are ideologically dug in,” he said. “So it’s really hard for anyone to be in the middle — there’s no reward for that, scientifically.”

“So we’re going there – with this publication, and with subsequent research. We’re hoping to make a little bit of a splash with it,” he said. 

Kittinger says he’s hopeful that this paper can help chart a different course for ocean conservation, and the scientists that support it. The future of marine life — and of our continued dependence on it — may hinge on what comes next.

Further reading:

Bruno Vander Velde is the managing director of content at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.

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