The State of Marine Protection

Scientists and activists have been yelling to protect the ocean. There is even a rise in demand for action from the general public. Politicians keep signing pledges. Clearly, ocean protection is a big deal. But what’s the state of things? Where are we and where do we need to go?

What are MPA?

Marine protected areas (MPA) are essentially areas of the ocean where there is some restriction on human activity. What exactly that entails, well, that’s a bit vague.

Currently, there are about 14,000 MPA worldwide spanning about 24 million square kilometers. That’s about 6.6% of the ocean surface. Only 2.9% of the ocean is highly or fully protected. With everything connected to the ocean’s health, that seems so little. Especially, if you consider goals like the 30×30 goal that aims to protect a third of the ocean by 2030.

I’m still very torn on these goals, and am pretty sure we should just scrap them, but more on that later.

A few large-scale MPA make up a good chunk of the protection. Seriously, a remote MPA in the Ross Sea makes up 15% alone and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument near Hawaii another 15%.

Or to look at it from the other end: the bottom 11,715 MPA on the list make up only 0.3% of global MPA coverage. In other words: they are very local.

Large-scale MPA, so MPA with more than 100.000 square kilometers or more are still the exception for marine protection. And even those are usually multiple-use areas where protection is a relative term.

Nonetheless, these large-scale MPA are super important, because they can take entire ecosystems into account and even include migratory species.

We’ll get more into the benefits and criticisms in the next episode of this series, so for now, let’s just say that it’s primarily a group of US fisheries scientists and the actual fishers who stand to lose and income (or think so…) who are against these MPA things. Granted, some of their criticism is valid, and we’ll get to all that next time.

Pushback from fisheries scientists and fishers

To make things more complicated, fisheries management, so figuring out just how much fish and seafood to squeeze out of the ocean, will only get harder with climate change. Warming temperatures and other impacts will move species around, and countries that are currently relying on e.g. sardines or anchovies, might find themselves without.

In a great example of selective realism, some companies have actually understood this and fought to avoid protection for regions like the Ross Sea mentioned before that might become fisheries in the future. It’s like oil companies hearing about the melting glaciers and wondering how they can exploit the new oil grounds… Seriously! Capitalism and neoliberalism really have done a number on us.

The Ross Sea Region was a long fight. It took decades of urging from environmental groups and an open letter from more than 500 scientists to get a large part of the Southern Ocean protected with an MPA in a rare piece of global cooperation (by the 24 countries of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). It took this long because China and Russia were fighting tooth and nail to protect future fisheries income… Well, the good side won (at least on paper), and we’ve not got 1.9 million square miles of almost untouched ocean protected.

But, it’s a long way from anything, so that probably played into things…

Speaking of things that are far from anything: high-sea fishing is just stupid. There, I said it. I couldn’t write it like that in my thesis, so there you go. It’s fucking stupid. Most high-sea fishing wouldn’t be profitable without subsidies (which you are paying for with your taxes…) and it provides an especially high risk to biodiversity. A study by O’Hara et al from 2019 found that with the fuel use, higher bycatch, and little impact on actual food production, they just aren’t worth it. Stopping that shit altogether would help a lot with little impact on what’s on your dinner plate–or can be there.

Global cooperation

Global cooperation on marine protection has been quite the issue for decades. There are some areas where promising things are happening and countries are actually getting their shit together, getting over themselves, and working together.

But many times, things aren’t working out as they should. In December of 2021, for example, the AGRIFISH Council meeting in Brussel was supposed to figure out the quotas for North-East Atlantic fisheries. And what do they do? They set the quotas 300,000 metric tonnes above the scientific advice, because they can’t agree how to divide things…

We talked about all that protection on paper last time but it bears repeating: governments keep making promises, signing agreements, and making pledges to do something. But those agreements are often non-binding, vague, and in the far future. It’s why I’m so hesistant about goals like the 30×30 goal. Yes, 2030 is soon-ish but we need actions, not goals. And as long as there is no qualitative part to these things and it’s all just about the numbers, they might actually water down protection by adding large areas without proper enforcement or management that make everyone feel good but don’t actually help anyone.

And MPA can help so fucking much! We’ll get into the benefits and criticisms in detail next time, but the main difference between MPA and other types of fisheries management is that marine reserves are proactive where most traditional management is reactive. It’s like the difference between taking care of your health and getting bypass surgery.

Marine protection as a conversation tool

MPA as a conservation tool aren’t even remotely new. New Zealand is often seen as a pioneer in ocean conservation, because their Marine Reserve Act was one of the first in 1971. Sure, back then they mostly cared about preserving the Leigh area for scientific study, but I honestly don’t care why people establish protection, as long as they fucking do it.

The Cape Rodney/Okakari Point (CROP) marine reserve was fully established in 1975 and has served as a control or baseline for many studies since. Since then, New Zealand has protected about a third of their waters (both territorial and even their EEZ), though the degree of protection varies quite a bit. From fully-protected no-take reserves like the CROP MPA to benthic protection areas that offer partial protection, especially of the benthos, while still allowing surface fishing even with methods that are high in bycatch.

And this is a great example of quantity and quality. New Zealand can say that they protected a third of their waters–and, don’t get me wrong! This is great!–but only 2.2% of their EEZ is fully or highly protected. That’s a big difference!

A marine reserve you might actually have heard about before, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park, was founded in the same year as New Zealand’s CROP. The GBR is a 344,000 square kilometer area covering the UNESCO World Heritage reefs off Australia’s west coast. It was the first large-scale MPA and remained the only one for 23 years.

It got pushed off first place by the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Ecosystem Reserve which was established in 2000 in a remote, uninhabited area, and then expanded in 2006 as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A third large-scale MPA joined these in 2008 when the Republic of Kiribati established the Phoenix Island Protected Area. Since then, more large-scale MPA were added but, as I said, actual protection varies widely.

The state of marine protection

Last time, we talked about the Aichi Targets, a set of targets signed by a bunch of countries that came together at the Convention on Biological Diversity. They set all these goals for a better world that were supposed to be achieved by 2020. Most of them were not, as we’ve established, and some are even worse off.

They are thought to have pushed MPA creation from small no-take areas to large multi-use areas. The cynical side of me wants to believe that this is because large numbers look better, even if they are absolutely ineffective paper parks. The hopeful side of me wants to believe that this is an actual shift into the right direction.

Either way, small and very small MPA are still the predominant reality today. And even those are usually little more than so-called paper parks, so parks that merely exist on paper, happily boosting global conservation numbers, but with little management or enforcement. The reasons for their ineffectiveness varies but it’s often lack of funds for enforcement or even the regulatory frameworks needed to know what’s what. We’ll get to that in more detail later in the series.

So, back to the Aichi targets. There is indeed an upward trend in fully and highly-protected areas, but few countries have actually met their goals for 10% ocean protection as per the Aichi targets. At this point, only eight countries have met the goals set for 2020.

Country | fully/highly protected

  1. Palau: 78%
  2. United Kingdom (includes 12 territories): 39%
  3. Mauritius: 29%
  4. United States (includes 6 territories): 24%
  5. Panama: 21%
  6. Chile: 12%
  7. Kiribati: 12%
  8. Argentina (includes 2 territories): 11%
  9. Australia (includes 4 territories): 9.6%
  10. Mexico: 4.7%
    FIGURE X: Ten countries with the highest percentage of fully/highly protected areas. Source:

Scientists have been yelling (okay, they are scientists, so they probably spoke very calmly and professionally…) about the serious decline in fish populations and marine biodiversity for quite a while now. The scientific community has long agreed that biodiversity loss makes ecosystems less efficient and increasing biodiversity makes systems more stable, productive, and resilient. Countries typically officially support their protection but biodiversity loss is still accelerating and there’s a significant gap between science and policy that needs to be bridged urgently.

As I keep saying: the ocean affects every single one of us. Every. Single. Fucking. One.

Note: This series is based on my bachelor thesis, so there will be quite a bit of overlap in how I worded things there and here. Of course, my thesis was a bit more professional in wording while I keep things here accessible, but it is still worth mentioning, mostly so no one gives me any crap about self-plagiarism or whatever.



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