Are “Strongly Protected” MPAs the Future of Ocean Conservation?

A new paper in science by Jane Lubchenco and Kirsten Grorud-Colvert discusses the recent progress and advocates for creating and enforcing “strongly protected” marine protected areas (MPAs). For the purposes of this paper, strongly protected MPAs are those that restrict all commercial activity and allow only light recreational or subsistence fishing. Today only 3.5% of the ocean is protected but only 1.6% is strongly protected. The 10% protection goal for coastal marine areas by 2020 decided recently at the Convention on Biological Diversity is too loosely defined and should be specific to strongly protected MPAs or marine reserves. However it should be noted that significant progress has been made in establishing more strongly protected MPAs in the past decade, which, “reflects increasingly strong scientific evidence about the social, economic and environmental benefits of full protection.”

The authors highlight seven key findings suggesting that such MPAs are indeed needed in a greater percentage of global oceans. Successful MPA programs must be integrated across political boundaries but also with the ecosystems they assist – an ecosystem-based management approach is essential. Engaging users almost always improves outcomes. MPAs may improve resilience to future effects of climate change, but there is no question that, “Full protection works,” such that primary ecological goals are almost always met with strongly protected MPAs.

In conclusion, six political recommendations are outlined. An integrated approach is equally important in the political balance for successful MPAs – other management schemes must be considered and dynamic planning is most effective in preparation for changing ecological systems. There is no one-size-fits-all method for MPAs. Top-down or bottom-up approaches have been successful and to determine the right strategy stakeholders should always be involved in the process. Perhaps most importantly, user incentives need to be changed in order to alleviate the economic trauma of short-term losers.

Comment by Robert Kearney, Emeritus Professor,  University of Canberra

Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert espouse a relationship between the declaration of “totally protected” areas and the science and politics of the provision of ocean protection. However, in the absence of description of the relationship between the threats to oceans and the protection being attempted, coupled with the lack of assessment of the effectiveness of outcomes, the association they assert is unjustified.

Ocean protection is indeed an issue of immense global importance. The myriad reports of declines in ocean health confirm that opportunities for policy progress need to be pursued.

Assessment of the effectiveness of the “science and politics” in any discipline is dependent on evaluation of outcomes against clearly defined objectives. Unlike politicians, scientists have a responsibility to define objectives and strategies unambiguously. The objective of the provision of “ocean protection” is not immune from this requirement.

Dictionaries define ‘protection’ as the action of protecting, with the clear implication (usually stated) that it is the result of action against a real or perceived threat or threats. In the absence of a threat ‘protection’ has no relevance. Evaluation of actual, or even anticipated, outcomes, such as the provision of protection, has little credibility in the absence of evidence-based assessment of cause and effect.

Normal scientific process dictates that determination of the appropriate ‘actions of protecting’ would be preceded by determination of the threats to whatever it is that is to be protected. Presumably the interests of efficient provision of protection would be influenced by addressing threats in some priority order, commonly related to the severity of the threat. The effectiveness of the provision of protection should then be based on assessment of the degree to which all threats, or at least those that pose the greatest threat, have been ameliorated.

While there is not international agreement on the ordering of the threats to the world’s oceans there is acceptance that they are many. They include: chemical and physical pollution in many forms, ocean warming, increased acidification, sea-level rise, destructive practices and alterations to physical habitats, inadequately regulated fishing and introduced and artificially translocated species. As the priorities for addressing threats are influenced by the perceptions of those informing management the projection of inadequately researched advice, and/or the provision of mis-information, to managers including politicians, are themselves also threats.

The Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert article does not prioritise the many threats to oceans. The authors do, however, unambiguously give selected prominence to the regulation of extraction. Areas are stated to be “fully protected” if extraction is excluded. The primacy they attach to having more areas closed to extraction is confirmed by the signal prominence of their figure depicting “Growing Protection”. Their measure of ‘protection’ is the amount of area claimed as ‘fully protected’, i.e. all extraction is prohibited. This measure is, unfortunately, merely a descriptor of one form of input. It is not a measure of the level of protection (the required outcome) actually provided.

When directly addressing interpretation of ‘protection’ the authors lament the ‘loose definition’ provided in the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). They provide as an alternative definition a series of degrees of protection based exclusively on the regulation of levels of extraction from selected areas. Importantly, they assert that areas be considered “fully protected” if there are “no extractive activities allowed”. Several forms of fishing are the only extractions specifically mentioned.

There are several fundamental inconsistencies in this basic assertion:

  1. Regardless of the absolute priority that might be given to individual threats to oceans there is no doubt that injection into oceans of many anthropogenic outputs (most obviously within the generic category of ‘pollutants’) constitutes great threat. In the light of growing recognition of the impacts of pollution, including the secondary effects on ocean warming and acidification, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, injection directly and indirectly into marine environments should not be considered a lesser threat to total “ocean protection” than extraction from selected areas.
  2. Unless all threats are addressed and outcomes demonstrated to be effective an area should not be espoused to be “fully protected”. In the absence of demonstrated amelioration of at least the major threats categorisation as even “strongly protected” is highly questionable.
  3. Exclusion of even all fishing (and/or other forms of extraction) from part of an area does not render even that part of the total area ‘fully protected’, even from the impacts of fishing and/or other forms of extraction. Unmanaged fishing and numerous other forms of extraction adjacent to closed areas can significantly impact the contents of those areas and thus the level of ‘protection’ achieved.

Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert acknowledge that “reserves cannot address all stressors.” They accept the need to “integrate reserves with other management measures” specifically identifying “issues such as bycatch, unsustainable and IUU fishing, climate change and ocean acidification.” Again the prominence they have given to fishing activities confirms bias in their prioritising of threats and objectives. It is surprising that the authors’ recognition that such fundament fishing activities as bycatch and unsustainable fishing will not be adequately addressed by reserves has not shaken their belief that even selected areas will be “totally protected” and effective “ocean protection” provided by regulating extraction.

The assertion that even parts of oceans can be “fully protected” by regulating extraction is not consistent with the available evidence. Acceptance of it distracts “the science and politics of ocean protection” away from evidence-based pursuit of amelioration of the real threats to the world’s marine environments.

Robert Kearney is an emeritus professor at the Fisheries Institute for Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra. Email him here.
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2 Comments

  1. Fact one: Ms. Lubchenko was a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment (1992);
    Fact two: Ms. Lubchenko was a member of the Pew Ocean commision;
    Fact three: The Pew family are the founders and owners of Sun Oil, among the world’s largest oil extracting and refining petrochemical industries.
    Fact four: as already mentioned above by Prof. Karney, the article avoids mentioning all the main threats to oceans’ health, apart from commercial fishing, in particular the threats of both continual and sporadic but catastrophic outbursts of pollution stemming from petrochemical sources.

  2. A quick comment to M. Ben-Yami:

    You make potentially interesting points. However, regardless of your argument, I think it’s important that you refer to Prof. Lubchenco with her proper titles (http://gordon.science.oregonstate.edu/lubchenco/jlcv). You refer to Prof. Karney…. Be consistent. Improper attribution of correct titles to women is a classic example of gender bias; this weakens your argument, but worse, it subtly undermines the credibility of Prof. Lubchenco.

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