New Study: Protect 30% of Ocean by 2030, Boost Fisheries, and Sequester Carbon

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

new study published in Nature by 26 authors from around the world details the overlooked benefits of ocean protections that would be secured if countries protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 — and provides a blueprint of the best areas for conservation. 

  • In the U.S., some reefs, which are crucial in buffering Gulf Coast communities against powerful storms, have lost 98% of their coral populations due to sewage, shipping, and pesticide and fertilizer runoff.
  • Oceans are now undergoing “ocean stratification,” a process that experts say could triple atmospheric carbon by 2100.

Why This Matters: Protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030 could ensure the health of key biomes while also boosting ocean-reliant economies, many of which need a jumpstart due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ocean fisheries support millions of jobs and feed people across the world, and international trade relies on shipping and ocean travel. But ocean ecosystems also play a huge role in sequestering carbon and buffering coastal communities from worsening hurricanes.  Currently, only 7% of our ocean is protected, and experts say that increasing it in the right places could yield a trifecta by boosting global biodiversity and the yield of fisheries while sequestering more carbon.

What’s the Plan?

Experts say the world needs to protect 30% of oceans by 2030, but just which 30% should be protected? That is what the researchers behind this new report set out to find first. They evaluated the world’s unprotected waters and searched for regions where simple changes could yield the greatest benefits across their three complementary goals: biodiversity protection, seafood production, and climate mitigation. Those locations were then mapped to serve as a blueprint for governments across the world. Dr. Juan S. Mayorga, a report co-author, and a marine data scientist explains that different regions will need different approaches, but this blueprint can help them figure out where to begin. “There is no single best solution to save marine life and obtain these other benefits. The solution depends on what society—or a given country—cares about, and our study provides a new way to integrate these preferences and find effective conservation strategies,” he said.

Working toward the study’s three main goals, biodiversity protection, seafood production, and climate mitigation, could yield incredible results for the countries that increase ocean protection. The study was the first of its kind to evaluate the carbon impact of trawling, a widespread fishing practice, and found that trawling is producing carbon at the same rates as the aviation industry. The practice pumps millions of tons of CO2 into the ocean every year, putting pressure on the oceans already suffering ability to sequester carbon. But this study found that the solution is relatively simple; 90% of trawling emissions could be eliminated by increasing ocean protections by just 4%.

The study also found that strategically place marine protected areas (MPAs) that ban fishing could boost the production of fish, and could increase the catch of seafood by 8 million metric tons compared to past years. And with such protections, come much-needed healing. “After protections are put in place, the diversity and abundance of marine life increase over time, with measurable recovery occurring in as little as three years,” explains Dr. Reniel Cabral, a report co-author and assistant researcher at UC Santa Barbara. “Target species and large predators come back, and entire ecosystems are restored within MPAs. With time, the ocean can heal itself and again provide services to humankind.”

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