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Protecting the ocean would solve climate, food and biodiversity crises. Can countries get fisheries on board?

Marine protection offers a combined solution to several of humanity’s most pressing challenges as global heating intensifies and fisheries struggle. But how can governments convince communities that conservation gains are worth waiting for?

The ocean and the creatures that inhabit it are under threat. Safeguarding our seas using strict ocean protection would benefit the environment and bring about economic benefits, but pushback from fisheries and other industries has long hindered stronger conservation measures.

Now, researchers have identified priority areas that—if protected—will boost seafood security and protect marine life while reducing carbon emissions. They have also devised ways to sway stakeholders traditionally opposed to ocean conservation.

The new study, published in the scientific journal Nature, finds that strategically placing protected areas (MPAs) on a third of the ocean, will safeguard 80 per cent of the habitats for embattled marine species and increase seafood catches by over 8 million tonnes.

The findings refute the long-held view that ocean protection harms fisheries. In fact, when protections are put in place, marine life bounces back, often in as little as three years.

The paper underlines that the United Nations’ ambition to safeguard 30 per cent of the planet’s land and ocean would make a dramatic difference in preserving not only a vast number of species currently teetering on the brink of extinction, but also the ocean’s ability to provide food and store carbon.

Doing so will require a global and concerted effort, the researchers say. An international approach would also be more effective in safeguarding endangered species, making it possible to reduce the overall portion of the ocean that needs protecting to obtain the same conservation gains.

The peer-reviewed paper, titled Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate, comes ahead of the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference, which in October will gather global leaders in China to finalise an agreement to halt the world’s biodiversity decline. The study also follows commitments by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union and others to achieve the UN conservation target.

The goal of protecting 30 per cent of the earth’s ocean by the end of this decade is expected to be a pillar of the treaty. However, the new paper shows that 30 per cent is the minimum that must be safeguarded to ensure optimal benefits for humans and nature. Around 7 per cent of the ocean has been designated or proposed as marine protected areas (MPAs), but only 2.7 per cent is currently fully protected.

Some argue that closing areas to fishing hurts fishing interests. But the worst enemy of successful fisheries is overfishing—not protected areas.

Enric Sala, National Geographic explorer, study author

The ocean is a trove of biodiversity that contains unique life forms. It is also a major sink of human-caused carbon emissions. Bottom trawling—a fishing method that involves dragging heavy nets across the ocean floor—is responsible for carbon emissions similar to those from aviation as it tears up carbon-rich seabeds. Closing about 4 per cent of the ocean to bottom trawling would eliminate 90 per cent of the present risk of carbon release, the study finds.

Fisheries play a key role in ensuring food security. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, global fish consumption more than doubled over the past three decades, reaching 156 million tonnes in 2018, and the world’s appetite for fish shows no signs of abating.

Current efforts to manage fisheries responsibly have not reversed the global trend of overfished stocks, even as habitat destruction and climate change accelerate the decline in marine life further, causing supplies of wild-caught fish to dwindle. As of 2017, more than one-third of global fish stocks were outside of biologically sustainable levels.

“It’s clear that humanity and the economy will benefit from a healthier ocean. And we can realise those benefits quickly if countries work together to protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030,” said Enric Sala, National Geographic explorer and lead author of the study.

“Some argue that closing areas to fishing hurts fishing interests. But the worst enemy of successful fisheries is overfishing—not protected areas,” he said.

Make conservation count

To identify priority locations for protection, the researchers analysed the world’s unprotected ocean areas where conservation could deliver the greatest benefits across the three goals of biodiversity protection, seafood production, and climate change mitigation.

They mapped these areas to create a blueprint of highly diverse marine areas where species and ecosystems face the greatest threats from human activities, and where bottom trawling risks disturbing rich carbon stocks.

Priority areas are distributed throughout the ocean, with the vast majority contained within the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of coastal nations. Biodiversity-rich Asia Pacific is home to most key locations the study identifies.

“The Asia Pacific region is home to several of the world’s marine biodiversity hotspots,” said William Cheung, professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries of the University British Columbia in Canada, and one of the authors behind the study.

“At the same time, many of the fish stocks in the region are overexploited and struggling. That means spillover effects from protected areas could benefit fisheries greatly while protecting endangered species,” he told Eco-Business.

Protected areas were also needed in Asia Pacific because of the way fisheries operate, he said. Unlike in Europe and North America, where firms target specific species, fisheries in the region tend to catch many different species, making regulations focused on individual species redundant.

Other conservation areas the study highlights are scattered across the high seas. They include the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Mascarene Plateau in the Indian Ocean, the Nazca Ridge off the west coast of South America, and the Southwest Indian Ridge, between Africa and Antarctica.

David Mouillot, a report co-author and a professor at the Université de Montpellier in France, said it was “encouraging” that enormous conservation gains could be obtained by safeguarding habitats of vulnerable species. Currently, only 2 per cent of endangered species are sufficiently protected.

Worth the wait

The conflict between conservationists and the ocean’s extractive industries is maintaining low-levels of marine protection, said Cheung. It can be hard to persuade stakeholders to pursue conservation goals when it takes time for economic benefits to materialise.

Ocean conservation projects usually move through various stakeholder consultations before authorities reach a decision. Once communities, fishing lobbies and other industries have chipped away at the original proposal, the final protected area is often much smaller than originally intended.

Stricter measures can lead to short-term losses for fisheries, making them hard to introduce where communities depend on ocean resources for their livelihoods. In 2018, 39 million people were employed in fisheries globally. Rich in fish stocks, many areas critical for biodiversity are important fishing grounds, making it even more difficult to keep fishing vessels away.

“It may take five to 10 years for the spillover effect to increase fish stocks outside of conservation areas. But especially in developing countries, fishing communities have immediate needs and may not be able to wait for long-term gains due to the potential short-term loss in income,” Cheung said.

However, there are ways to cushion such short-term impacts until marine ecosystems recover enough for coastal communities and fisheries to reap the benefits.

“Governments should recognise these conservation gains as societal benefits and be prepared to spend money on protection accordingly. One way is to support local stakeholders by partly compensating the short-term loss that they may be experiencing from the protected area,” Cheung said.

He cited Hong Kong as one example where fishing communities went along with a proposal to ban trawling in 2011 because the government offered compensation. A decade on from the move, there are visible signs that fish stocks around the archipelago are recovering.

“This shows that some of these trade-offs can be resolved if conservation plans are carefully designed,” he said.

Another way is to get communities involved. In countries where communities’ lives are intimately linked with the ocean, governments can build on existing indigenous traditions and resource management to encourage community-based ocean conservation projects. Such initiatives have been launched in the South Pacific island nation of Palau, Cheung said.

“There is no single best solution to save marine life. What works best depends on the local context. If the international community can agree on conservation targets and work together to implement them while also meeting local needs, that would be the right pathway for sustainable development in the ocean,” he said.

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