Marine protected areas: Why we need them so much?

So we all love the ocean right. It’s a beautiful place where we all want to spend more time either doing our favorite thing, scuba diving or snorkeling or just enjoying the ocean’s beauty in your own way. However there is no guarantee that they are going to stay that way with wonderful diversity and rich in life. Due to a number of factors, most being human action, large parts of the ocean ecosystem is in trouble and putting at risk the marine life that habitats within the oceans. As a result areas have been established to help protect the oceans and the life that occupies them. These areas are called Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Scope of Marine protected areas

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – areas of the ocean set aside for long-term conservation aims – are the only mainstream conservation-focussed, area-based measure to increase the quality and extent of ocean protection. MPAs and their network offer nature-based solutions to support global efforts towards climate change adaptation and mitigation.

MPAs – such as Cook Islands Marine Park and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the US – currently cover about 6.35% of the ocean. However only just over 1.89% of that area is covered by exclusively no-take MPAs that do not allow any fishing, mining, drilling, or other extractive activities. This is far from the commitments of States made in relation to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Aichi Target 11 of 10% MPA coverage by 2020, and even further from the recommendations made at the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 that at least 30% no-take MPA coverage worldwide is needed.

Most existing MPAs do not have enough human and financial resources to properly implement conservation and management measures. Added to this critical situation is a spatial disparity: seven countries have established around 80% of the surface of the MPAs in the ocean. The high seas, covering over half the Earth, still lack a framework through which MPAs can be established.

Lack of strictly and permanently protected MPAs limits our ability to support climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, to reduce the overall climate change impacts on oceans, such as ocean warming, substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are still urgently needed.

Goals of MPAs

Different MPAs have different goals. The main focus of many MPAs is to protect marine habitats and the variety of life that they support. For example, the Galápagos Marine Reserve, which lies about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) off the west coast of South America, protects a series of small islands and the surrounding waters. This reserve includes a tremendous variety of habitats, from coral reefs to cold ocean currents to mangrove swamps, where trees grow directly in salty seawater. The waters around the Galápagos are home to 3,000 different plant and animal species, including unusual species such as the marine iguana, the world’s only seagoing lizard.

Some MPAs focus on conserving historic sites such as shipwrecks. The USS Monitor was a warship that sank in a storm off the coast of North Carolina during the Civil War. In 1975, the USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was established to protect the remains of the ship. It was the nation’s first national marine sanctuary.

Other MPAs are established in order to ensure that resources are sustainable—that they will not run out. By having limits that prevent overfishing, these MPAs ensure that fish can reproduce and maintain healthy populations. This enables people to fish year after year, maintaining their way of life. Georges Bank, off the coast of New England and Nova Scotia, Canada, was once one of the world’s greatest fisheries. But it was heavily fished for centuries, and populations of cod, haddock, flounder, and other species plummeted. After several MPAs were established by the United States and Canada, fish populations began to increase, and fishing improved.

Why MPA?

National governments establish many MPAs. State, local, and tribal governments also establish MPAs. For example, the U.S. state of California has established the Point Lobos State Marine Reserve to protect underwater canyons and kelp forests. The Quileute Tribe of the U.S. state of Washington works with the federal government to keep the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary a sustainable fishery.

Sometimes, national governments work together to establish an MPA that crosses borders. Italy, France, and Monaco together established the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals. It covers parts of the sea that are in the nations’ own territories as well as international waters.

At some MPAs, the level of protection remains the same year-round. At others, people are only barred from an area during certain seasons, often when vital species are breeding. For example, in the Irish Sea, fishing is controlled during cod spawning season, when the fish produce and fertilize eggs. This helps conserve the cod population.

California MPA

The Reading Rock State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) borders approximately 3 miles of coastline in far Northern California and extends out to sea to create a total of nearly 12 square miles of protected area. The slightly smaller Reading Rock State Marine Reserve continues on from the SMCA’s west border and follows the curve of the 3 nautical mile state waters maritime limit. These MPAs are offshore from the town of Orick, approximately 45 miles north of Eureka.

The coastline and waters in these MPAs are largely pristine, in part due to the small population of people that live in this region. Orick, the only town near Reading Rock for miles around, is estimated to have a population of 357 according to the 2010 census. The list of threatened species found within Reading Rock SMCA and SMR is equally long and includes: Western Snowy Plover, Marbled Murrelet, Stellar Sea Lion, Killer, Humpback, and Sperm Whales, Sea Turtles, and Short-Tailed Albatross.

Marine Protected Areas in a Changing Climate

Climate change is having a profound impact on ocean ecosystems. We are already seeing impacts such as increased ocean temperatures, sea level rise, altered weather patterns, changes in ocean currents, melting sea ice and the effects of ocean acidification. These impacts will be felt by ecosystems already affected by existing stressors on the marine environment such as overfishing, habitat loss and land-based sources of pollution. In light of these impacts, MPAs are being increasingly recognized as a key tool for maintaining and restoring ecosystem resilience in a changing climate.  MPAs can also provide long term protection for “blue carbon” – coastal habitats including salt marshes, seagrasses and mangroves that provide long term storage for atmospheric carbon.

The MPA Center is working with other climate and MPA programs to provide information, tools and capacity building to address climate change impacts in the ocean through an ecosystem-based, adaptive approach.

My name is Thomas and I love the ocean. As we can see from the above, Marine protected areas are fundamental in preserving  marine life in all its forms and is so important this work continues and more areas are protected to protect such beautiful ecosystems.

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