Blue is the new green: Oceans vital to Earth’s vitality

In the conservation world, public attention sometimes has too heavy a focus on terrestrial ecosystems. This can lead to the neglect of conservation issues affecting other ecosystem types. Some of these ecosystems that occasionally receive less attention are marine and ocean ecosystems. In the EU especially, where just under 20% of countries are landlocked, there is often a greater focus on protecting biodiversity and nature on land. However, oceans play a crucial role in maintaining the world’s health, supporting many crucial processes and providing vital ecosystem services.

Sustaining source of life

While staring out across the ocean, many may not be aware of the vibrant life that these waters are home to. The oceans contain unique areas of biodiversity, such as coral reefs, and many areas are still a mystery to us. Regardless of how much of the ocean humankind has explored, the oceans are a vital part of the planet’s life support.

In addition to hosting a treasure chest of biodiversity, the oceans are also a valuable food resource. Over 3 billion people rely on as their main source of protein. That accounts for nearly a half of the world’s population! Moreover, the oceans also provide indirect benefits to people. The oceans act as a major sink for anthropogenic carbon. Sediments on the ocean and sea beds are the world’s largest carbon sinks and function as a key basin for long-term storage. Ocean contains unique biodiversity, provides valuable food resources and is a major sink for anthropogenic carbon. (sentence brining everything together)

Insufficient MPA network

However, the current degradation of marine and ocean ecosystems threatens all these benefits. At the moment, countries proposed or designated only 7% of the world’s oceans as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). However, just designating an area as an MPA is not enough. Especially when they lack sufficient management plans to prevent damaging fishing practices. An even smaller percentage of the world’s oceans, 2.7%, have fully protected status. These areas primarily include small ocean islands such as the French Southern Territories, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The designated areas are thus protected from all extractive use. While this is the highest protected status a marine area can achieve, the low percentage of these areas worldwide is mainly down to conflicts. Conflicts between the perceived trade-offs stemming from two apparent opposing interests. These are nature conservation on the one side, and extractive uses such as fishery on the other.

Degrading ocean systems

Compounding this lack of protection are the anthropogenic effects that affect the rest of the ocean. The exclusive economic zones are areas that are regularly impacted by intensive human activity. This damages their plethora of unrecoverable biodiversity.

Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ): An EEZ of country is defined by the1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In these zones the state claiming the EEZ has special rights concerning the exploration and use of marine resources. The EEZ is calculated from the territorial sea boundary of a state (usually 3 to 12 nautical miles from the shore) to 200 nautical miles off the coast.

Unsustainable fishing practices are a key contributor to this. Further impacts from unsustainable fishing practices, such as trawling, include carbon disturbance. The sediment beds at the bottom of the ocean can hold all the organic carbon stored there for millennia. At least if humans leave it undisturbed. However, by disturbing these stores, carbon remineralises CO2. This results in a more acidic ocean, increasing the amount of atmospheric CO2 as the ocean loses its ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. A recent report describes the importance of marine protection in combatting climate change, protecting biodiversity, and sustaining fish supplies. The authors suggest that current rates of trawling will lead to a long term effect of increased carbon in the atmosphere. They expect around 15-20% of the CO2 currently absorbed by the ocean per year.

MPAs strengthen ocean ecosystems

Researchers involved in writing this report believe that properly managed MPAs can protect the ocean’s biodiversity and ecosystem services. The setting up of MPAs, which would prohibit extractive and destructive activities, can be effective in safeguarding and restoring ocean biodiversity as recovering fish populations from within MPAs will migrate and replenish other stocks for food provisioning. In addition, this would help with natural climate change mitigation as MPAs would protect marine carbon stocks.

The MPA model shows that the dichotomy between protection and extraction is not a zero sum game. Especially where overfishing is occurring, the implementation of an MPA could have its greatest impact there. This could lead to higher sustainable yields in the long-run. All in all, MPAs can simultaneously improve the yield of fisheries and simultaneously protect biodiversity and protect ecosystem services offered by oceans such as climate mitigation.

Setting aside areas

The potential of MPAs are enormous. Merely protecting 3.6% of the ocean, mainly within EEZs, would lead to a 90% reduction in the risk of carbon disturbance from bottom trawling. If we strategically protect 21% of the ocean (43% of EEZs and 6% of the high seas) then it would drastically increase the average protection of endangered and critically endangered marine species from 1.5% and 1.1.% of their ranges to 82% and 87%. Furthermore, if MPAs end up covering 28% of the ocean, we can achieve an increase of 5.9 million tonnes in extra fish stocks.

These are all tangible benefits which would be greatly beneficial to the world. However, this requires a globally coordinated effort. Such an effort would be twice as efficient as uncoordinated national-level planning according to the report. If we would coordinate the efforts globally, we could conserve the same amount of biodiversity by protecting half as large an ocean area.

The need for concrete actions

This highlights the urgent need for action and investment in MPAs. The researchers outline that the level of protection and management effectiveness of weakly protected MPAs should be upgraded as soon as possible. This will require a coordinated international effort as there will be short-term strain on some countries which have disproportionately large areas that require immediate MPA upgrades. A coordinated international effort would thus contribute the social adaptation required by the change induced by taking areas out of extractive use.

For 2030, the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People aims to protect 30% of ocean area. The alliance of 57+ countries is co-chaired by Costa Rica and France and by the United Kingdom as Ocean co-chair. However, they have not outlined a concrete strategic plan under this. Nonetheless, this shows that the political appetite for a plan to protect oceans, involving MPAs, could be growing. When we translate talk into action, then ocean protection could yield benefits for biodiversity conservation, food provisioning and carbon storage.

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