Achieving Fully Protected Marine Reserves Is Increasingly Urgent

Anacapa Island, California. Image: NPS

by Jenna Sullivan-Stack, Postdoctoral Scholar, Oregon State University Department of Integrative Biology

When preparing for the birth of my son this February, I decided to make him a mobile of some of the things that are most important to me (I am not crafty, so this was a real labor of love). What I ended up making isn’t a huge surprise, given that I’m a marine ecologist. But the felt animals I sewed represent treasures from my life – ones that I want him to experience too. A bright red lobster from childhood visits to Old Silver beach in New England with my grandma; a seahorse from my time with a conservation NGO on the Florida Gulf Coast, where the smell of mangrove mud seeps into daily life; a green sea turtle from my time teaching in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where islanders have understood the vital importance of the ocean to people for untold generations; a purple sea star from the Oregon coast rocky intertidal where I fell in love with the ocean as a child, and where I returned to conduct my Ph.D. research.

It isn’t news to readers of Our Daily Planet that a healthy ocean is vital to humankind, or that ocean habitats and species are in dire need of protecting. But the ocean is so big – how much and what kind of protection is needed?  For me personally, the birth of my first child makes the urgency of ocean conservation work palpable. I want my son, and all children, to grow up in a world where the ocean’s rich biodiversity can still be explored, and where it can still support the millions of people around the world – including my family and loved ones – that depend on it for their livelihoods, their cultures, their survival.

The need for marine protection, and how to make it effective, are not always apparent to people because the ocean may seem healthy from the surface.  The ocean may seem healthy from the surface, and is so vast – people wonder, how
could it fail?  Scientists and those close to the ocean know it faces many challenges, including overfishing, climate change, and ocean acidification. As a scientist, I know that fully protected marine protected areas (MPAs) are essential for conserving the ocean that is increasingly under threat. To make it easy to understand why we need these protected areas, and what kind of protection works best, I collaborate with global colleagues on a project called The MPA Guide. We have learned that conversations around MPAs and the conservation benefits they can provide are often rife with confusion.

  • What is the difference between an MPA, a “Marine Park”, and a “Marine Reserve”? What type of activities are allowed in an MPA, and what are not?
  • What outcomes can people expect when they protect an area of ocean in an MPA, and when?

The MPA Guide provides clarity about how to achieve effective ocean protection. The Guide provides a common language so we can get past this confusion and get on with the real work of effective ocean protection.

The MPA Guide defines four Stages of Establishment and four Levels of Protection for any particular MPA or zone. The Stages of Establishment outline the process by which a government or other managing authority establishes or enlarges an MPA. These range from Proposed/Committed, when the intent to create an MPA has been made public, all the way through to Implemented and Actively Managed. The Levels of Protection clarify the degree to which biodiversity and habitats inside the MPA or zone are protected from extractive and destructive activities. These range from Minimally Protected to Fully Protected, where extractive activities such as fishing, mining, or oil extraction are not allowed. Once an MPA is Implemented, the outcomes – both for nature and for people – depend directly on the Level of Protection. You can take a look at The MPA Guide to better understand the details of these Stages and Levels.

As world leaders set targets for protecting a certain percentage of the ocean (e.g., the ongoing campaign to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030), The MPA Guide can ensure that we set these targets with eyes wide open. MPAs need to be Implemented and Highly to Fully Protected to most effectively protect biodiversity.

To celebrate Ocean Week this year, my colleagues and I launched The Graphic Guide to Marine Protected Areas. In this fun, beautifully drawn (by @AndyComics) comic-style booklet, readers from all walks of life can learn about how and why MPAs are needed for effective ocean protection.

The ocean and its rich biodiversity belong to all of us, and to future generations. We each have a role to play in protecting the ocean, and in engaging and lifting up diverse voices from around the world that are working towards a just, equitable, and secure future for our blue planet. I am excited for the day I can show fully protected areas to my son and say “look what the world managed to accomplish”.

Better yet, I can let him experience these special protected places in the ocean for himself. Maybe he will make a mobile about it someday.




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