Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Marine Protected Areas—Reality Check from Scientists

In a report released today by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), fourteen leading Canadian researchers and CPAWS staff sent a sharp reality check to government officials working on the protection of ocean and Great Lake ecosystems, simultaneously shining a beacon of hope.

In brief, current marine protection efforts fall far short—shockingly short—of what is likely needed to achieve what Canada has sought in various laws that enable the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs). On the flip side, it is possible to design, implement, and manage networks of MPAs to achieve great benefits for marine ecosystems, potentially restoring a bounty of nature that has disappeared from the memories of all but a handful of seasoned salty dogs.

Falling short

The protection of ocean ecosystems in MPAs is far short of the protection of terrestrial ecosystems globally, and marine protection in Canada lags well behind marine protection in numerous other countries. Less than 1% of Canada’s ocean territory is protected in MPAs [1], whereas approximately 12% of the Earth’s land surface is under some form of protection. Even more stark is the contrast with what seems to be needed to achieve the objectives and benefits of MPAs: my colleagues and I have recommended that at least 30% of Canada’s waters should be strictly protected in order to have a high likelihood of success [2]. (By strictly protected, we mean without extractive uses, except constitutionally protected First Nation food, social and ceremonial harvest.)

There’s no doubt that this high target for protection will invite substantial push-back, particularly from ocean users, as to the realism of ‘setting aside’ so much productive space. To such charges, I have three responses. First, the 30% minimum is a statement of the science of what’s necessary for particular outcomes sought by laws and policies on the books, not a statement of preferred policy. Some of our recommendations would likely require new laws and policies to support the existing ones (the Oceans Act, the National Marine Conservation Areas Act), but it is not the place of scientists to modify science-based targets in the name of political feasibility [3].

Second, MPAs aren’t ‘set aside’ in the sense of being locked up without production. MPAs are hard at work producing diverse benefits for people, both within and beyond their boundaries.
The Big Eddy, a high-productivity site that CPAWS has
advocated to be protected, off the west coast of
Vancouver Island.

Third, humans adapt. We have only just begin to think seriously about marine protection, and such big challenges typically seem impossible until they are started with conviction.

Beyond the proportion of the seascape that we recommended for protection, we have also recommended substantial changes to the processes of designing, implementing, managing, and governing MPAs. For example, we’ve underlined the critical importance of embedding MPAs in seascapes that are managed with an ecosystem-based approach, accounting for the cumulative impacts of multiple human activities on ecosystems and the services they provide people (see the Sidney Consensus for a multi-stakeholder consensus on the meaning of ‘ecosystem-based management’ (EBM) for western Canada) [4]. This is critical for MPAs because patches of ocean are not islands—they are intimately connected to surrounding seascapes, in ways that both make them vulnerable and also allow export of the benefits they provide, including fish, shellfish, and other organisms.

A second critical process we’re recommending as necessary for MPAs—paralleling the Sidney Consensus regarding EBM—is adaptive management: designing policies and management explicitly for the sake of learning, in order to improve future management. Current management is generally not adaptive in this strong sense, but it must be in order to disentangle the cobweb of interacting impacts on marine ecosystems: commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries, warming, acidification, pollution from both land-based and marine activities, sedimentation and erosion from coastal development, etc. It’s clear that adaptive management requires a major shift in mindset, but it’s also clear that without a structured adaptive approach, management is flying blind.

What’s new?

In recommending 30% as a minimum area for strict protection, our team is keeping with past recommendations, such as from the University of Queensland in Australia [5], and from a team of scientists regarding the California Channel Islands [6]. It's also in keeping with the actual percent protected in the Great Barrier Reef. But this is also a leading edge recommendation, because it rests upon an extensive review of the science in support of areal targets for marine protection.
The yellow areas in this map are high-priority areas
for MPAs, according to the BC Marine Conservation
Analysis. Well under 1% is currently under strict

Although the numbers are not exact, the available evidence strongly suggests that the benefits of marine protection will often not be fully realized unless at least 30% of the ocean is strictly protected. And these studies generally consider a small number of well-studied impacts on ecosystems, whereas we know that marine ecosystems are threatened by a wide variety of impacts, many of which are very poorly studied. Similarly, the existing studies generally consider a simplified set of the ecological processes—like migration—that sustain populations and ecosystems. Recognizing that there is always a suite of impacts and multiple essential ecological processes that might be degraded by those impacts, arguments for less than 30% protection are simply not supported by current science.

The hope

Our message is at its heart a hopeful one. Marine ecosystems are invisible to most of us, even though we benefit greatly from them in the form of seafood, climate regulation, cultural values and more. As invisible common property, ocean ecosystems have been subject to no end of insults over the past few decades, without eyes to see the resulting devastation. The implication is that the oceans that you see now are a pale shadow of the oceans that once graced this planet, and a meager version of what is possible. Numerous studies of marine populations in many ecosystems suggest that historical levels of abundance were manifold greater than current levels [7,8]. Such bountiful abundance is not beyond our reach unless it is also beyond our imagination. Restoring ocean ecosystems is no easy task, but a robust network of MPAs is a superb first step towards that end. And the payoff could be immense.

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