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Perhaps the most beautiful and prolific of all seascapes are the warm waters that surround the Bird’s Head Peninsula of Papua New Guinea. The area includes more than 2,500 islands and 760,000 Indonesians live on its shores. There are more species of fish, corals and crustaceans than anywhere else on the planet. Scientists believe that most tropical species originated there in the “cauldron of evolution” and then migrated to other areas. You will find much more complexity and diversity than, say, in the Caribbean. By the 1990s this area had been devastated by large commercial fisheries, including illegal dynamite fishing, trawling, and poaching. Some fisheries were reporting a 90% decline in catches.
Things started changing for the better in 2004 when a number of environmental organizations, including Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, the WWF, and the government of Indonesia, got together with local people and established a network of 12 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering more than 5.2 million hectares. Today, in those areas, fish, sharks, whales, and rays have returned, coral is recovering somewhat, poaching is way down and tourism is flourishing.
In the 1970’s the villagers on the island of Sumilon[1], in the province of Cebu, Philippines, troubled by the growing scarcity of fish, sought help from academics from Silliman University and James Cook University. They established a small MPA on their western shore (9.431, 123.387). The fish and coral life came back. After a change in leadership in 1984 reopened the reserve for fishing, stocks dropped by half within a year. Once the area was re-protected, the fishery bounced back, establishing the connection between protection and marine stocks. On the nearby island of Apo (9.08, 123.27) the villagers have kept their reserve area for over 25 years and increased stocks over eleven times.
Japanese eat an incredible amount of seafood. Although they are certainly decimating stocks of tuna and other large migratory fish caught overseas, a lot of what they eat is caught locally. I have wondered how they maintain stocks. A 2010 study provides some of the answers. (“Coastal Marine Protected Areas in Japan and Their Institutional Characteristics”, Noboyuki Yagi, Yukiko Takada, Hisashi Kurokura, all from the Univ. of Tokyo). They noted that informal marine protection areas, managed from the bottom up, have been in place for some 250 years. Tenured fishing areas have been awarded to individuals who have vested interests in monitoring their own activities and others in their communities. There are over 1,000 MPAs structured this way. In addition, there are some government imposed MPAs structured from the top down. There are 1,003 no-take zones. This system seems to work quite well. It depends on the government awarding tenure rights to fishing areas combined with the fishers’ accumulated knowledge on how to best manage the fishery. MPAs are an important part of this management strategy.
Many of the most spectacularly successful marine reserves have been initiated by local people, with the help of expert advisors. This is one of the key requirements for success. Locals must be included and in fact are often best at monitoring and nurturing fisheries. Experts need to study the current situation, plan where best to situate the reserve and establish measurable goals. Although most of these early reserves are very small, size does matter. Scientists agree that a minimum size of 100 km2 is required to truly protect an area. Fish need space. A minimum of 30% of a marine bioregion is required.
An article in Scientific American (February 2018) warned against lax MPAs. Many reserves are in name only and allow industrial fishing and resource extraction. Today only 1.8% of the earth’s seas are in protected areas where either no fishing or only artisanal fishing for local consumption is accepted. In coastal U.S. waters only .03% are no-take. The figure for Australia and Canada was less than 1% in 2016. In over one-third of Canada’s MPAs, oil and gas activities are permitted.
It is important that MPAs are set up to protect marine species. This may seem obvious, but it is often not the case. A study by Dalhousie University looked at 727 MPAs in Europe. (Boris Worm, senior author: “Elevated trawling inside protected areas undermines conservation outcomes in a global fishing hotspot,” Science, Dec. 21, 2018) It found that industrial fishing was present in at least 59% of the areas and trawling was 38% higher in “protected” areas than in non-protected areas. Half of the MPAs had no management plan and 99% had no information on no-take zones. The study also noted that critically endangered species such as sharks and rays were five times more abundant in non-MPA areas. No management plan, no no-take zones, no enforcement because there is nothing to enforce. Often industrial fishing is done in these zones because the fishing is known to be good (so far) and it has also been suggested that they are fishing ruthlessly now because fishing might be reduced in the future. A study in 2020 by Oceana, a conservation NGO, found that bottom trawling and dredging, the most destructive forms of fishing, have been done in 71 of 73 off shore MPAs around the UK, covering 97% of the protected areas.

Worth Protecting

There have been some very large reserves established lately. Britain has created vast no-take reserves around Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. U.S. President Barrack Obama expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Monument, which surrounds the northwestern Hawaiian island, to twice the size of Texas. But there is little fishing in these areas. Even so, the recently defeated President of the U.S. had plans to open this and other national monuments to commercial fishing. The U.S. is the only U.N. member state to not ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity. Today 86% of MPAs globally are tied up in just 21 reserves in mostly tropical waters, away from populations and where there is little fishing.
Canada has the world’s longest coastline and one of the worst records of protecting its ocean heritage. The current federal government has stated that it will create MPAs covering a U.N.-mandated 10% of territorial waters, so far with mixed results.
The proposed Laurentian Channel MPA was originally planned by marine biologists to be a template for future MPAs that the government hoped to create. But then the fossil fuel lobbyists started talking to the politicians. The area was reduced by one-third to 11,619 square kilometers and offshore drilling is now to be allowed in over 80% of the territory. Climate scientists insist that the fossil fuel companies are sitting on far more reserves than they can burn, so offshore exploration for more is pointless. Fake news? Now we have fake MPAs.
By all accounts the marine conservation area being established in Tallurutiup Imanga/Lancaster Sound is going to be spectacular. It’s huge: 110,00 square kilometers. The region has been called the Serengeti of the north. It is home to 75% of the world’s narwhals in summer, polar bears, walruses, seals and many bird species. Shell Global has relinquished its exploration permits in the area and management will be based on Inuit traditional knowledge. No commercial fisheries or oil and gas exploration will be allowed. Other matters, such as artisanal fisheries and hunting are still being worked out. Wow. This has all the hallmarks of success: local input and management, traditional Inuit and scientific knowledge, huge area, no large-scale fishery, no oil and gas, and apparently minimal political interference. It’s an area I’ve dreamed of going to.
The one-time Eric and I were planning on going there was an unusually large ice pack. Everything was iced tight, and we went to West Greenland instead. Maybe someday.
In 1984 a bottom-dredging expedition accidentally stumbled across some unusual specimens two kilometers down off the coast of Vancouver Island. A submersible was sent down with two scientists and to their astonishment they saw six-story tall spires, teaming with life. These were huge chimneys spewing volcanic heat and sulphur gases. A dozen of the species especially adapted to sulphides in the gas are found nowhere else. The volume of creatures is comparable to what is found in tropical rainforests.
In 2003 the federal government designated “the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents” as Canada’s first MPA. It covers 97 square kilometers and the water column above it. Now there are plans to expand the area to 139,700 square kilometers, or four and a half times the size of Vancouver Island. Dredging, mining and oil drilling would be prohibited, although not surface fishing. There are numerous seamounts in the area that would be included in the MPA. (Source: Jimmy Thomson, The Narwhal, June 27, 2019)
One technically advanced area where MPAs have been effectively planned and supported is California. The state insisted their MPAs be subject to expert scientific input. Not politics. Rigorous baseline data was first collected, and areas established. Long-term monitoring is conducted statewide. A network of 124 stakeholder driven MPAs covering 16% of the state, excluding San Francisco Bay, has been established. Three fifths are no-take. Already, after 10 years, fish are bigger and more numerous and spreading out into non-protected zones. As in many areas, California is leading the way, balancing conservation with commercial development.
The seas surrounding the Seychelles Islands have long been a diving and tourist mecca. But industrial overfishing and the recent effects of climate change have threatened the corals, tuna, dolphins, turtles, sharks, and fish that the area is famous for. The mass bleaching events of 1998 and more recently in 2016 have devastated corals around several of the islands, especially Curieuse Island.
According to Damian Carrington writing in The Guardian, the Seychelles are planning to finance two large MPAs in an innovative way. The most spectacular area is the Aldabra archipelago (-9.4, 46.3). Huge colonies of seabirds soar above while 100,000 rare giant tortoises roam the island. In the surrounding waters swim spinner dolphins, humpback whales, lemon, nurse and tiger sharks, manta rays and the endangered dugongs, or sea cows. In exchange for creating an MPA surrounding Aldabra that is 74,000 km, almost the size of Scotland, and another around the main island of Mahe that is 134,000 square kilometers, the Nature Conservancy bought $22 million of national debt owed to the UK, France, Belgium, and Italy. $5 million more is being raised from donors, including $1 million from Leonardo DiCaprio. $12 million has been set aside for managing the area over the next 20 years. This first ever debt swap for marine protection is a model that other developing countries, such as Grenada and Mauritius may be interested in pursuing.
To understand why establishing MPAs is so vitally important it is helpful to understand the scale of industrial fishing worldwide. A study of satellite data from 70,000 large and small fishing vessels published in the journal Science, led by David Kroodsma, research and development director for U.S.-based charity Global Fishing Watch, stunned the researchers when they looked at the map and saw the extent of industrial fishing. It covers most of the world’s oceans. The study was partly funded by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, with input from academics from the universities of Stanford, California, Dalhousie, National Geographic and Google. The data showed that “five countries account for 85% of commercial fishing measured by hours at sea. Half of that is China; other large-scale operators include Spain, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan- which is smaller than Switzerland, and with a population of just 23 million.” (Juliette Jowit, Guardian, February 22, 2018)
Another study published in Scientific American led by Daniel Pauly, UBC, compared China’s reported catch from 2000 to 2011 of 368,000 tons a year with an actual catch estimated at around 4.6 million tons a year, more than 12 times the reported figure. Of that, the authors estimated 2.9 million tons came from West Africa. Fishing is under-reported worldwide and treasured marine areas must be protected.
Pauly is promoting a global ban on high-seas fishing. He has noted that as a result of overfishing, less than 10 percent of global fisheries comes from the open ocean. Such a policy would enable smaller, coastal nations to increase their catch. The big, open-ocean fleets are currently massively subsidized by their host countries. Japan has the biggest subsidies, followed by China, which takes the most fish. Pauly points out: “If the catch were not being made by these foreign fleets, it would be made by coastal countries [in Africa or Southeast Asia]…All these species [like cod and tuna] would benefit from being left alone in the high seas…If high-seas fishing were banned, fishermen would actually catch more.” (Richard Schiffman, September 27, 2018, Yale Environment 360) Another study by researchers in USA, Canada and Australia found that as much “as 54% of the high seas fishing industry would be unprofitable at its existing scale without big government studies.” (Zhuang Pinghui, South China Post, June 7, 2018)
In 2002 the UN declared an aspirational goal of preserving 10% of the oceans in marine protected zones by 2010. By 2016, since the creation of five mega MPAs off the coasts of St. Helena’s, Chile, Hawaii, Palau, and the Pitcairn Islands, 5% of the oceans were protected. It’s a start. However, as noted, these five regions are not where most of the fish are. More importantly, many marine scientists, including Callum Roberts, insist that 30% is the minimum area that should be protected, and that the areas should be large and inter-connected.
Needed: places of refuge for distressed marine species, worldwide. Also: it’s not enough to declare a protected marine area. You must enforce it. Strong satellite surveillance and coast guard and navy enforcement is required. A great help for developing countries such as those in West Africa might be investments in MPAs by environmental organizations and other nations, using the Seychelles MPAs as an inspiration. There is a lot of good work that needs to be done.
In November 2018 delegates from 22 countries met in Tasmania to create the world’s biggest sanctuary in Antarctica. This was a golden opportunity to protect species including whales, leopard seals and penguins. It would also have been important in combating climate change, as the area soaks up large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, unanimous agreement was needed to pass and China, Russia and Norway ensured the plan was rejected.
Hopefully an ambitious program for protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 will be more successful. There have been intensive negotiations amongst nations for the past two years and a vote on the UN Ocean Treaty was scheduled for 2020. This vote was postponed due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Dr. Sandra Schoettner, from Greenpeace’s global ocean sanctuaries campaign, who is involved in the negotiations, said: “This is a blueprint for ocean protection that would safeguard the full spectrum of marine life, help tackle the crisis facing our oceans and enable their recovery.” (Matthew Taylor, “Campaign to save oceans maps out global network of sanctuaries”, April 3, 2019, The Guardian) 


On December 19, 2022, in Montreal, holdouts China and the DRC gave support for a new, historic treaty to protect the high seas. Then on Saturday, March 4, 2023, in New York, 193 countries agreed to ratify the treaty. The countries agreed to protect 30% of the seas by 2030 (30 x 30) following a decade of negotiations. Environmentalists are cautiously optimistic that the world may now be on a path to ocean rejuvenation. Let’s hope.

Canada’s liberal government has recently added some large MPAs in arctic waters. This is praiseworthy. However, most of the “protected areas” are sparsely populated, not all of them prohibit oil, gas and commercial fishing activities, and there is the big question of enforcement.
The amazing thing is that according to numerous studies, the incredible life of the world’s oceans could be restored within a generation if MPAs were properly designed and restrictions enforced, fishing was regulated, and pollution reduced. Researchers have also learned that seaweed and shellfish farms, mangroves and salt marshes soak up huge amounts of CO2 and bolster shorelines against rising sea levels. Jacques Cousteau said it in 1979: “We must plant the sea…using the ocean as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about-farming replacing hunting.”
[1] A long-term, spatially replicated experimental test of the effect of marine reserves on local fish yields Angel C. Alcala, Garry R. Russ, Aileen P. Maypa, and Hilconida P. Calumpong,

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