Protecting the good 30% of our ocean
* All opinions expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Today, only 11% of marine protected areas are in territorial waters. Most are established offshore, far from territorial seas rich in biodiversity
Rocky Sanchez Tirona is the general manager of the Fish Forever program at Rare. Steve Gaines is Dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In response to these challenges, the UN Convention on Biodiversity has set a target to conserve 30% of land and oceans by 2030. National governments and international organizations are joining the 30×30 campaign to achieve this.
The 30×30 campaign is a unique opportunity. It is inspiring to see countries come together to support an ambitious goal. But are global efforts to protect the ocean directing support and resources where they can have the greatest impact for people and nature?
To meet global biodiversity targets, we must ensure that we protect the full range of ocean regions that have significant impacts on biodiversity.
At the top of the list would be the territorial seas – the thin strip of ocean up to 12 nautical miles from shore. This area is home to 100% of the mangroves, 100% of the seagrass beds, 100% of the kelp forests and 83% of the coral reefs, all essential habitats for fish and other forms of marine life.
These coastal regions are also where high biodiversity meets high human use.
Coastal communities in all developing tropical regions depend on healthy coastal fisheries for their food and livelihoods. These fisheries employ 50 of the world’s 51 million small-scale fishers. They produce 40% of the world’s fish catch. And almost all of the fish caught in these fisheries is for human consumption, making them essential for food security.
But today, only 11% of marine protected areas – the main tool for protecting the oceans – are inside territorial waters. Most are established offshore, far from territorial seas rich in biodiversity.
Why? Because it is socially and politically easier to protect areas away from densely populated regions. While successes in offshore protection have significant benefits, addressing the disparity in increased coastal protection is essential if 30×30 is to have a meaningful impact on nature and people globally.
Fortunately, there is a proven method to achieve this.
First, we must combine protection with effective management. Local and indigenous communities depend on territorial waters for food and jobs – not all of them can be banned.
But tying no-take reserves to areas where sustainable fishing is allowed, and ensuring that fishing rights in those areas are reserved for indigenous and local fishers, ensures that communities benefit from conservation. We call this system Managed Access with Reserves.
Then embrace “bigger isn’t always better”. In territorial waters, networks of smaller marine reserves, designed with larval dispersal data to protect the life cycle of fish and ensure connectivity between protected areas, can help biodiversity, fish populations and the fishing to recover.
These reserves also protect ecosystems such as seagrass beds, coral reefs and mangroves, which not only provide habitats for marine life but are essential in mitigating the impact of climate change in the form of extreme weather conditions. This approach is generally easier for communities to adopt, where very large coastal protected areas are not feasible.
Third, local governments and communities are the key to effective management. Territorial waters intersect with hundreds of thousands of scattered communities, so top-down approaches rarely work. But when authority to manage waters is devolved and local governments are empowered with the knowledge, tools and data necessary for good decision-making, local communities have been successful in sustaining conservation efforts.
As we move towards 30×30, we need a concerted effort from governments, donors, NGOs and local communities to prioritize these critical waters and ensure these conservation efforts are properly funded.
Although territorial seas represent the greatest concentration of biodiversity in the ocean, intersecting with areas of greatest human need, less than 15% of ocean philanthropy is devoted to community conservation of coastal habitat and small-scale fisheries issues, based on a rough estimate by CEA Consulting. .
Effectively protecting and managing territorial waters is difficult, but essential. As we seek solutions that benefit people and nature, combining protection and sustainable production is an effective and fair path.