By 2020 the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets call for 10 percent of the world’s ocean to be protected. As the date nears, we are seeing real progress, like the creation of a vast new protected area around Chile’s Rapa Nui (Easter Island) that is as large as the landmass of mainland Chile. Chile has joined several other countries in starting to protect huge swaths of ocean.
Earlier this year, Gabon created Africa’s largest network of marine protected areas.
Last year, the United States quadrupled the size of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. In 2015, we saw nearly a million square miles protected, including huge areas around the United Kingdom’s Pitcairn Islands and New Zealand’s Kermadec Islands. According to Protected Planet, this brings the global total to 6.35 percent of the ocean protected.
But a sustainable future requires more than just lines on a map: to truly protect the ocean–and the food, jobs, and way of life it provides coastal communities–marine protected areas must be managed effectively. We are seeing progress there too, especially in World Heritage-listed MPAs. The island nations of Palau and Kiribati took the tremendous step of closing their immense marine protected areas to fishing, and the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos Islands have designated one third of their marine parks as no-take areas. Last month, the Mexican government announced a major no-take buffer zone around de Archipielago de Revillagigedo, following a recommendation from the World Heritage Committee last year when it inscribed the site on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
These nations have been working hard to enforce their new protections, using radar and satellite monitoring for remote surveillance, and showing what effective enforcement can accomplish. For example, two months ago a Galapagos National Park patrol ship intercepted and prosecuted a foreign vessel carrying 300 tons of sharks and other fish.
While the creation of marine protected areas generates justifiable celebration, it is only the beginning. The hard work of management often receives less attention and resources than it should. Marine protected area managers must navigate an array of threats and pressures, from pollution to invasive species and habitat loss. Consider Mauritania’s Banc d’Arguin, where millions of seabirds winter before returning to the Arctic. The site lies on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with passing ships fouling the waters and disturbing the birds. Or the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, where a coal-fired power plant is being built upstream from one of the world’s largest mangrove forests, threatening the home of the iconic Bengal tiger and countless marine species.
Marine protected areas have long been confronting pollution and development pressure; they now must adapt to a warming and acidifying ocean as well. The first global assessment of climate impacts on World Heritage coral reefs concluded that we could lose all of these ‘rainforests of the sea’ by century’s end if we don’t work together to curb emissions.
World Heritage recognition comes with serious responsibility. The moment a site is inscribed on the World Heritage List, the nominating nation(s) are committed to conserving it for future generations, and all 193 signatories to the 1972 World Heritage Convention are bound to join forces and help. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation sits at the very heart of our system to ensure World heritage sites are more than just “lines on a map.”
The 49 World Heritage marine sites should be beacons of hope in a changing ocean, demonstrating the power of collective action and effective management. The leaders at the Fourth International Marine Protected Area Congress (IMPAC4) recognized this potential. The Congress’ official “Call to Action for the Oceans,” specifically identified World Heritage sites as a priority.
These 49 gems encompass nearly 10 percent by surface area of all the world’s marine protected areas, and include many of its most unique and iconic MPAs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands, and Papahānaumokuākea. Ensuring effective conservation of these 49 areas of Outstanding Universal Value will substantially advance progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 14, and raise the standard for good management of MPAs around the world.
Now is the time for nations of the world to redouble their ocean protection efforts, and commit the time and resources required to ensure our new and existing marine protected areas fulfill their promise as a way to ensure a sustainable future for the world ocean.
The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of UNESCO.
Dr. 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.
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.