Conservationists Push to Protect Marine Areas

Great Barrier ReefConservationists are increasing their efforts to establish a global network of marine protected areas in response to the deteriorating health of the world's oceans.

Marine parks, areas that ban fishing, development, and other commercial activity to allow the recovery of fish populations and wild ecosystems, have become popular strategies in recent years to address the oceans' woes. More than one-third of marine ecosystems are seriously threatened by human activities, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Effective protective areas are often difficult to administer, however, due to their massive size and the fact that they often straddle national borders. About 0.08 percent of the world's oceans are protected, and 0.2 percent of the total marine area within national jurisdictions prohibits extractive industries.

To accelerate marine efforts, environmentalists announced priority regions to create marine protected areas (MPAs), several new policy strategies, and cutting-edge technologies that allow the public to virtually "see" the underwater conservation areas for the first time. The developments came at last week's IUCN World Congress, a quadrennial meeting of some 8,000 participants.

"Let's move forward. Let's scale up. Let's get visible. And let's show the world what we can do," said Dan Laffoley, a marine specialist with Natural England and vice chair of IUCN's World Commission on Protected Areas. "We want MPAs all over the place."

MPAs are one of several conservation strategies to protect marine ecosystems. Whereas other measures allow limited sustainable development in the protected waters, MPAs limit the right to remove seafood and other marine resources from these areas. For these restrictions, fishing communities often oppose the MPAs.

But MPAs are considered useful tools to boost fisheries within the reserve's boundaries and beyond due to their potential to protect key breeding and feeding sites. One MPA in the Philippines experienced a 560 percent increase in the biomass of its predatory fish populations, said Jane Lubchenco, a  zoology professor at  Oregon State University

"There is incredible potential for those MPAs to help revive fisheries outside the reserve," Lubchenco said. "The reserves are not a panacea-they don't solve all marine problems-but they are a good resource."

While several governments have been preserving large marine areas for decades - Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was designated in 1975 - more MPAs have been announced in recent years. The south Pacific nation of Kiribati set aside an area the size of California this year to create the world's largest MPA. The United States has also discussed plans to protect portions of the Pacific Ocean that may surpass Kiribati's Phoenix Islands Protected Areas in size.

Yet international goals to form a global protected area network by 2012 are not likely to be met until at least 2060, based on the current rate of protection, conservationists said at the World Congress. "An immediate global concern is the need for a rapid increase in MPA coverage in conjunction with scaling up of ocean management," a guide released to ocean experts said.

To suggest further MPA efforts, a coalition of environmental groups identified ten marine sites that they consider ideal for protected status. The sites, three of which are in the west Atlantic, range from the world's largest seagrass community in the western Indian Ocean to the partially frozen Ross Sea between West and East Antarctica. "These are magnificent places that are very much worth saving," said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

All ten of the sites are considered to be in the "high seas" - the 45 percent of the world's oceans that belongs to no single nation. Conservationists have historically dedicated less attention to these regions, but industrial fishing operations are increasingly moving to more-distant waters as global fish stocks plummet. Today, 75 percent of the world's fisheries are overexploited or exploited to their maximum capacity, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Environmentalists have so far had difficulty convincing governments to preserve regions beyond their own maritime borders, which are typically restricted to coastal zones that extend out from the continental edges. Carl Gustaf Lundin, head of IUCN's global marine program, said one solution could be the use of multinational bodies such as the International Seabed Authority, which oversees the sunken Titanic.

To provide further guidance, the IUCN Congress revealed "10 Principles for High Sea Governance." The document called for industries to perform environmental assessments prior to all activities in the high seas, and for a switch to more holistic marine policies based on ecosystem-wide approaches rather than the current focus on specific at-risk species.

IUCN President Valli Moosa described the principles as "one of the more important outcomes of the Congress." Members of the Congress, which include government agencies, did not vote on the document, however, because IUCN did not want to make some countries "uncomfortable," he said, adding that "bureaucrats don't have authority to say anything."

Other Congress announcements included two new media ventures that conservationists hope will allow the public better access to MPAs worldwide.

Google Earth announced the addition of an "MPA layer" to its online mapping software. The program allows viewers to visit more than 4,000 MPAs and access photographs, videos, and stories about the underwater sites. "We will never be able to get rapid progress unless...we crack the visibility issues," Laffoley told Congress attendees. "It's not just about putting dots on a map. It's about being able to engage the world community to make history."

Laffoley said the Google Earth layer should also help developing countries access global information about marine preservation. "For the first time, countries across the Pacific who had trouble with communication... have the ability to connect to the site just as well as well-funded western NGOs," he said.

National Geographic also revealed the first 24-hour, live ocean camera made available to the public. Readers can find the video, streaming from an atoll in Belize, here

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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