Safeguarding Ocean Resources: Effective Governance of Marine Protected Areas

Good News for Marine Protected Areas

The year 2015 has held great promise for the future of ocean conservation, as four giant marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established, with a fifth currently in negotiations. Cumulatively, these MPAs have set aside over 2.2 million square kilometers of ocean in the South Pacific as protected areas, raising the total area of MPAs to cover approximately 3.5% of the world’s marine environments.

Marine Protected Areas are vital for the protection of fish stocks in precipitous decline worldwide, allowing the populations the opportunity to recover. MPAs also preserve hotspots of marine biodiversity (particularly concentrated around reef ecosystems), core areas of endemism, and unique geologic features. Looking just at the newly established sites, we see examples of each of these goals; the newest MPAs allow the protection of 1300 species of fish and 700 species of coral within the Palau Island MPA, unique ecosystems offshore Chile that are made up of assemblages consisting of 72% endemic species, and the world’s longest chain of submerged volcanoes within New Zealand’s Kermadec ocean sanctuary.  The protection of marine systems has been a global priority within the field of conservation, as recognized by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2011, which set a target goal of 10% of the world’s oceans set aside as MPAs by 2020. Even with the massive parks established this year, many more must be erected in the next 5 years to meet the target goal. Moreover, the necessity of governing such vast, often remote, tracts of ocean present a unique challenge. The largest newly established reserve, the Pitcairn Island MPA, weighs in at 830,000 square kilometers and must be monitored and enforced. How can an area of this size be effectively governed?

A coral reef surrounding the tiny Palau Island. Palau recently declared 80% of its national waters to be a no take marine protected area. (Tony Shih photo)

Joint Governance: Collaborative Efforts to Manage and Enforce Protected Areas

Most MPAs are set up by the government, with significant partnerships with both the local communities and NGOs. For example, the Chilean government is currently negotiating with the indigenous island peoples on Easter Island before implementing its second MPA, with the intent to allow traditional fishing practices to occur within the protected waters. However, the day-to-day enforcement of protection status is most often carried out by a nation’s naval fleet, with assistance from other branches of the military. Enforcement strategies may not be explicitly stated, as was the case after the United States created a 1.3 million square kilometer reserve, providing few details on how it was to be governed. Even enforcement within a country with such tremendous military reserves as the U.S. may not be adequate to protect its waters from illegal fishing—much less in smaller nations such as Palau Island.

This is where joint governance with environmental NGOs, such as Oceana and Oceans 5, becomes immensely important for capacity building and enforcement. After establishing a 500,000 square kilometer MPA, the tiny Palau Island (with no navy and only one enforcement ship) appealed to the international conservation community for assistance in enforcing protection measures—and the call has not gone unanswered. NGOs have teamed up with governments to create a joint program to monitor MPAs using satellite technologies, with the aim of picking up electronic signals of boats illegally fishing in protected waters. There has also been a collaborative effort of public education to raise awareness about the plight of the seas and the importance of MPAs to protecting sustainable fish stocks and global biodiversity.

Commercial fisherman in Alaska prepare to begin the salmon season. (James Brooks photo)

Limitations of Governance Strategies

While these joint governance frameworks appear to be effective in reducing poaching in protected areas, the central player is generally always the government of the state that erected the reserve. In a place like Palau, the government has demonstrated its commitment to marine protection by designating an immense tract of its waters (80% of its exclusive economic zone) as a no take zone, and literally burning ships belonging to foreign poachers caught illegally fishing in Palau waters. But what happens when nations are considerably less committed to protecting their marine reserves?

In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), an immensely important UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing great biodiversity and cultural heritage, is currently threatened by inadequate governance. The GBRMP is governed jointly by a federal park authority and the regional Queensland government, and is categorized as a Category VI Protected Area under the IUCN framework, meaning that human use of natural resources is permitted. Earlier this year, the World Heritage Committee considered listing the GBRMP as a World Heritage in Danger after the government failed to produce a cohesive long-term management plan that addresses the greatest threats to the reef: unsustainable fishing, pollution (via catchment run-off, coastal development), and climate change. The Committee has issued over 25 formal recommendations to the Australian government and requests to address these issues. However, these recommendations have yet to be adequately incorporated into the governance of the region, and business continues as usual; in January 2014, the federal Minister of the Environment approved the dumping of dredged sediment from the construction of Port Abbott within the boundaries of the GBRMP! It is thus clear that economic interests may trump conservation goals in decisions made in MPA governance. Therefore, it is essential that the governance regime of this system to be diversified in order to spread the authority among a wider variety of stakeholders (local community stakeholders, NGOs) to reduce the governmental bias towards economic growth and protect the wealth of biodiversity along the Australian coast.

Australian citizens protest the construction of Port Abbot at the Rally for the Reef in Brisbane. The dredged spoils from the port’s construction has been approved to be dumped within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, despite massive public outcry. (Photo by Stephen Hass)

While the expansion of MPAs is certainly a step in the right direction, it does not automatically confer protection to the waters that fall within its boundary: becoming increasingly important is the governance strategy employed to protect them. Governing bodies are responsible for deciding the location, size, access, and enforcement of marine protected areas, the consideration of which are crucial to the success or failure of marine conservation efforts. A recent report in Nature suggests that the size of protected areas may be overemphasized in conservation importance—benefits to biodiversity are instead accrued through 5 key traits of a marine reserve: no take zones, strong enforcement regimes, greater age, increased size, and isolation from fished areas. These criteria fall under the jurisdiction of MPA governing bodies when designating protected areas, and greatly impact the effectiveness of the reserve. Therefore, deeper assessment of the efficacy of the governance frameworks that create, manage, and enforce these marine reserves must be undertaken to truly protect the multitude of species that call the sea their home.

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