Global Marine Conservation

Marine ecosystems face many threats–notably from overfishing, but also from pollution, shipping, climate change, invasive species and more. Human pressure on the oceans increases every year whilst efforts to limit the destructive impacts are totally out of proportion. Global marine conservation lags far behind terrestrial efforts. Marine protected areas, in particular when forming an ecologically coherent and representative network, are considered as one of the essential tools for ocean recovery. Currently, only about 1.5 % of our oceans are designated as protected areas, with varying degrees of management, compared to 15 % on land. It becomes obvious that, at sea, the target of providing "effective protection for at least 10 % of each habitat type globally" set by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2002 for the year 2010 has not been achieved. However, keeping in mind that the initial percentage of protected marine areas was 0.5 % in 2004, conservation efforts have been increasing consistently over the last decade and continue to expand.



A global legal and regulatory framework for global ocean governance provides the basis for a globally standardised regulation of human activities - but up to date no such framework exists for spatial measures such as the designation and management of human activities in marine protected areas:

In addition, the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (1991) and the FAO International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas (2009) provide further (voluntary) frameworks. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolutions on Sustainable Fishing (2006, 2009) call on states and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) to implement the FAO International Guidelines by setting out a management framework. This includes the closure of certain areas for bottom fishing activities, for the prevention of significant adverse impacts (SAIs) on vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), and the protection of the marine biodiversity that these ecosystems contain.


Timeline for Conservation Goals

In 2010, the Conference of the Parties (COP) 10 of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), noted that despite the progress being made, the global conservation efforts have been insufficient to date. They fall short of meeting the targets, in particular preventing the continuing serious decline in marine and coastal biodiversity and ecosystem services. Therefore, the meeting reformulated timelines and targets as to achieve a protection status of at least 10 % of the world’s oceans up to 2020. During the same period the loss rate of ecologically important areas should be reduced by at least 50 %, to restore and protect ecosystems essential for ecosystem services. In addition agriculture, forestry and aquaculture should be made sustainable, and all damages caused to coral reefs and comparable sensitive ecosystems be reversed by 2015.

Despite the existence of sectoral regulation, however, the overall governance framework for areas beyond national jurisdiction is neither comprehensive nor specific with respect to the expected standards in marine conservation. Hence, regional cooperation, for example as mediated by an environmental convention like OSPAR in the North-East Atlantic, is crucial for achieving conservation goals.

There are various tools used in marine conservation ranging from restrictions on fisheries, discharge and shipping, to coastal planning and the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs). As a result of the UNGA resolution, considerable progress has been made in the extent of fisheries closures by certain RFMOs. In the North-East Atlantic for instance, the area closed to bottom fishing amounts to about 350,000 km2.


Global Distribution of MPAs

Figure 1. Marine protected areas of the world. The
background shading displays the exclusive
economic zones of the coastal States. Size of
MPAs to scale, but MPAs in North-East Atlantic
missing. Toropova et al. 2010 (click image to enlarge)


When considering the current global distribution of MPAs (Fig. 1, Toropova et al. 2010), one recognizes a random rather than systematic approach to the conservation goal of the CBD. Indeed, many marine eco-regions as defined by Spalding et al. (2007) are underrepresented or not considered at all, whilst others like the coastal habitats of coral reefs, sea grasses and mangroves are covered in a disproportional way. Also, there is a trend for MPAs to be established mainly in areas far from human disturbance. This can be a problem as in areas that are subjected to direct human use, the impacts of degradation have the greatest social and economic costs.


Figure 2. Proportion of MPA coverage by jurisdiction.
Toropova et al. 2010 (click image to enlarge)


There is a clear weighting of MPA designations towards North America (including Mexico), Southeast Asia, Australasia and the Pacific. The largest gaps can be found around the Indian Ocean Basin, Central and West Africa and South and western South America. Only 12 countries have achieved a MPA coverage of 10 % or more of their national waters (Fig. 2).

Another significant feature is that MPAs are highly variable in size. Indeed, a rather small number of very large MPAs accounts for a large proportion of the global MPA coverage, combined with many very small sites. Furthermore, most MPAs are located on the continental shelf of which they cover 4.32 %, whereas only about 1 % of the off-shelf area is designated for conservation measures.

The MPAs, which make up the coverage mentioned above, are designated but do not necessarily have management measures in place. So in addition to being already seriously underrepresented on a global scale, in many MPAs the management does not yet deliver the levels of protection expected. Still, they will hopefully provide the legal framework for an efficient management to be implemented in the future.


MPAs Beyond National Jurisdiction are Still Rare

MPAs are still rare in the high seas, which comprise 64 % of the world’s surface covered by oceans. The waters (High Seas) and seafloor ('the Area') beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) are to date largely unexplored and under threat, notably from unsustainable fishing practices. The first MPA outside national jurisdictions, the Pelagos Sanctuary in the Mediterranean was established only in 1999. It was designated under a trilateral agreement between France, Italy and Monaco, and covers some 87,500 km2. The Pelagos Sanctuary is dedicated to the protection of cetaceans.

Designated in 2009 by the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the South Orkney MPA is the first full marine MPA in the Southern Ocean. It is the first of what shall become a fully representative circumpolar network of marine protected areas by 2012. The site covers some 94,000 km2 and neither fishing activities nor dumping, discharges or trans-shipments are permitted within it. 

In 2010, the OSPAR Ministerial meeting decided to establish the very first set of MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction and in a zone beyond the EEZ of Portugal. In the future it may be partly under national jurisdiction including the southern part of the Charlie-Gibbs MPA (see Factsheet). Already in 2008, OSPAR Contracting Parties had agreed "in principle" on the establishment of the Charlie-Gibbs MPA. In subsequent years OSPAR identified further candidate sites, such as the Milne, Altair, Antialtair and Josephine seamounts, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge north of the Azores. Together they cover 450,000 km2, or 8 % of OSPAR’s waters beyond the national 200 nm zone. These sites will be the basis for the OSPAR network of MPAs in ABNJ in the North-East Atlantic.


Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSA)

Given the particular slow progress with establishing the global network of MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 2008) has defined a pre-stage for MPA designation, the so-called ecologically or biologically significant areas (EBSA). EBSAs, highlight areas that are known to be especially diverse, representative, vulnerable or unique for their geology, particularly in the open ocean and deep seabed areas (see Factsheet). The global collection of such examples shall be instrumental to furthering the designation of conservation measures and in particular the designation process of MPAs.
Proposals for EBSAs have been elaborated recently for the OSPAR area (see maptool 2011), and the Western South Pacific. Other examples of potential candidates proposed for nomination beyond the OSPAR area are the Sargasso Sea (North Atlantic), the Saya de Malha Bank (Indian Ocean), and the Nazca Ridge (Southern Pacific Ocean).
In conclusion, the target of the CBD to provide effective protection for at least 10 % of each habitat type globally has not been reached in the marine realm to date. But it has most probably speeded up the efforts for establishing conservation areas--a positive trend expected to continue.



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