The Ocean Challenges Before Us Require All Hands on Deck

Last year was one of extremes for the world’s ocean. We celebrated the protection of vast swaths of ocean, along with some important advances in marine protected area management. But we also watched climate change and El Niño drain the life and color out of many of the planet’s most beautiful and beloved coral reefs. In my role as coordinator of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme, I help to monitor the state of conservation of nearly 50 ocean gems spread across 37 countries. My extensive time in the field gives me a bird’s eye view of the range of problems facing marine protected areas around the world. During my six years at the helm of this programme, I have come to appreciate the magnitude of the threats before us, and the tremendous capacity and expertise of the local guardians working to defend the seas.

A collage of the World Heritage Marine Programme at work. Photo credit: Left to right: Mark Kelley, Fanny Douvere, UNESCO/Hyperthese Productions
A collage of the World Heritage Marine Programme at work. Photo credit: Left to right: Mark Kelley, Fanny Douvere, UNESCO/Hyperthese Productions

For decades, marine conservation has lagged behind efforts to protect our terrestrial treasures like the Grand Canyon. Clearly, the balance is shifting, as world leaders increasingly recognize the economic and ecological value of the ocean. Last year saw President Obama quadruple the size of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Northwest Hawaii, a place inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 2010 for both its cultural and natural global importance. This expansion made Papahānaumokuākea the largest protected area on the planet. Just two months later, leaders from 24 countries and the European Union came together to protect the Ross Sea in Antarctica, the world’s largest marine reserve.


Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Northwest Hawaii. Photo credit: Smithsonian Project, James Watt Seapics
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Northwest Hawaii. Photo credit: Smithsonian Project, James Watt Seapics

Last year also saw some important advances in the decades-long effort to protect the High Seas—the deep ocean that lies beyond national boundaries and covers half the planet. UNESCO laid out for the first time a path forward for World Heritage protection of the High Seas, and identified five sites of potential outstanding universal value. At the same time, the UN General Assembly has been working on a new instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to promote conservation and sustainable use in the High Seas.

Even as we are breaking new ground in the conservation of exceptional places, we must also step up management efforts. The creation of new protected areas often generates major headlines, but that is only the beginning of the generations-long process to steward special places. The 1972 World Heritage Convention recognizes that effective conservation requires collective action. Our model of ongoing oversight and support has logged some important successes. For example, Aldabra Atoll has brought its green turtles back from the brink of extinction. Today, the site hosts one of the world’s biggest populations. Half a world away in Glacier Bay, a competitive bidding system for cruise ship park entries has brought air and water pollution to zero while simultaneously generating funds for management and research. Glacier Bay’s successes are now inspiring other parks to forge similar private-public partnerships. There are many such stories across the world’s marine protected areas, where good management is rebuilding sustainable fisheries, creating jobs, and supporting thriving communities. World Heritage marine sites are not only important from an ecological point of view, they also bring secure jobs and income to people and local communities all around the world. But having toured and inspected many of the world’s most iconic ocean places over the past six years, it is clear that the work of marine management is growing increasingly daunting.


Credit: National Park Service
Credit: National Park Service

Climate change has long been regarded as a future problem we must prevent, but climate impacts are here today, and they are everywhere. Studies have documented a steady increase in ocean temperatures since the 1950s. Last year, this warming was compounded by a strong El Niño that brought record-breaking heat to much of the Pacific Ocean, with devastating effects. Serious bleaching has now reached nearly 15 World Heritage marine sites, including the Great Barrier Reef, Phoenix Islands Protected Area, Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles, Lagoons of New Caledonia, and Papahānaumokuākea. Record high temperatures were also observed in Komodo National Park in Indonesia, home of the earth’s biggest lizard and some of its most exceptional coral systems.

A coral reef system in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey
A coral reef system in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Perhaps one of the most challenging things about managing marine protected areas today is that we are in uncharted territory. Climate change is still a relatively new phenomenon, and no one knows precisely what the future holds for our wetlands, coral gardens, mangrove forests, sea grass meadows, and ice floes. Much of the science we have is based on global averages, but climate impacts vary considerably from place to place. Within the World Heritage marine network, we are seeing storms, drought, flooding, temperature spikes, increased acidity and salinity, and changes to plant and animal life. No two places see the same kind of impacts and all are subject to other pressures that often decrease their resilience in the face of climate change.

Like ocean protectors everywhere, World Heritage marine managers are working to build local resilience and adaptation capacity. As we look ahead to 2017 and beyond, part our priorities at UNESCO will be to continue reducing local stressors we can control, like overfishing, pollution and industrialization among the World Heritage marine sites. But ultimately the long-term survival of these ocean icons will depend on effective implementation of the Paris Agreement that came into force last November. Countries are now obliged to take action to achieve the temperature goals enshrined in the Agreement and to meet the national emissions-cutting pledges made in Paris.

As I reflect on the past year, and the one ahead, it is clear that we are making major strides to protect more of the ocean and strengthen management of existing protected areas. But climate change is the greatest challenge any of us have ever faced, and it will take every bit of our ingenuity and international cooperation to conserve the remarkable marine areas that sustain and delight humankind.

fanny-douvereDr. Fanny Douvere is the coordinator of the Marine Programme at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, France. Since October 2009, her mission is to ensure the 49 marine sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List are conserved and sustainably managed so future generations can continue to enjoy them. She recently wrote in Nature on why not investing in marine World Heritage is a lost opportunity for the oceans and led UNESCO’s first steps into exploring World Heritage in the High Seas.

Prior to her work at the World Heritage Centre, she co-initiated and led the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) initative at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. In 2009 she co-published the UNESCO guide Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach Toward Ecosystem-based Management. The guide has gained international recognition for setting a standard for the application of MSP and is available in six languages. She also served as an advisor to the United States Executive Office of the President (Council of Environmental Quality) on the development of the US Framework for Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning.

She co-authored more than 20 articles in internationally peer-reviewed journals on both marine World Heritage and MSP. Most recently, she authored for World Heritage Marine Sites Managing effectively the world’s most iconic Marine Protected Areas. A Best Practice Guide, in which she lays out a tangible approach for marine protected area management based on the fundamental idea that all things happen in time and space and the oceans should be managed accordingly.

Fanny obtained her PhD in 2010 from the Ghent University in Belgium and published the book Marine Spatial Planning: Concepts, current practice and linkages to other management approaches.

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  1. Michael Sepehri
    January 28, 2:35 pm

    New discoveries in science can also produce advancements in conservation, researchers from England together with the Egyption university possibly have found a biodegradable replacement for oil based plastics by using discarded seafood shells. If this becomes viabile I could see sea farming increase in our oceans.

  2. Diane Brand
    780 Maplewood drive, Van Wert, Ohio, USA
    January 25, 1:25 pm

    The National Geographic, your work & the information you provide to the world, is more important than ever before! The United States of America is entering a dark time when information from your organization will become a critical factor! Environmental regulations and concerns are being overridden by executive orders every day, and the administration is just getting started. We Need You!!!