When is a Marine Protected Area real or an illusion?

Marinet reports: The UK Government has announced, 31st May 2019, that the Marine Conservation Zone Network for England — part of the UK’s “Blue Belt” programme of marine protected areas (MPAs) has been extended by 41 new sites, bringing the overall total to 91 sites.

The UK government’s news release states: “With 50 zones already designated in 2013 and 2016, the UK now has 355 Marine Protected Areas of different types, spanning 220,000 square km — nearly twice the size of England.

“Marine Conservation Zones are just one type of the many Marine Protected Areas in place around the UK to conserve rare, threatened and nationally important habitats and species for future generations.

“The UK government has called for 30% of the world’s ocean to be protected by 2030 and has co-chaired the creation of the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance with Vanuatu.

“The government will also publish an international strategy later this year setting out further action to conserve and sustainably use the ocean.”

A picture of Birling Gap looking over the Beachy Head West MCZ.
Photo: Natural England.

The statement that the UK government has called for 30% of the world’s ocean to be protected by 2030 is, observes Marinet, an interesting one. This announcement was first made by the UK government, 24th September 2018.

The UK government’s announcement states: “Globally, less than 10 per cent of the world’s seas are currently designated as Marine Protected Areas. Global targets for marine protected areas are set by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, with parties agreeing to protect 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

“Now, the UK is backing ambitious calls to treble internationally-agreed targets for protected areas, meaning 30 per cent of the world’s seas would be safeguarded as MPAs by 2030. The UK will join almost 200 other countries in November [2018] in Egypt to begin negotiations on a new global target, and will push to treble the current figure to 30 per cent by 2030.

“This approach would see a third of the world’s oceans protected. As is the case now, MPAs will consist of a range of management measures.”

The 30% MPA figure for the world’s oceans by 2030 is a key component, Marinet observes, of the current discussions considering the proposed UN High Seas Treaty, see Marinet Briefing Paper titled Is the new proposed High Seas Treaty up to the job? Marinet commentary, April 2019.

The proposal to create around one-third of the High Seas (i.e. all of the ocean beyond 200 nautical miles from any coastline and thus classified as Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, ABNJ) is both ambitious and encouraging. Unless such protection is afforded the current decline in the ocean’s health and the search to solve the causes of the degradation which we have afflicted upon it will come to nought.

The UK’s proposal for 30% MPA coverage has been supported by a top-level scientific/ academic study from UK universities [York, Oxford and Edinburgh] titled 30X30 A Blueprint for Ocean Protection and published by Greenpeace (Germany). The report states [page 11]:

Our [30% MPA] network … deal[s] with environmental change and uncertainty [in the ocean and wider man-induced global ecological pressures] in three ways:

(1) by portfolio building (i.e. representing a range of habitats, places and conditions across the world’s oceans) as a bet hedging/risk reduction approach,

(2) through large coverage which promotes connectivity, stepping stones, corridors for travel and refuges of last resort, and

(3) with the novel use of historical sea surface temperature data. In this new approach to climate change resilience, we identified two kinds of areas for extra protection: places with relatively high natural temperature variability, which represent ecosystems that may be inherently resilient to future change because species are adapted to fluctuating conditions, and places with low variability, where change may be slower and ecosystems have more time to adapt.

Collectively, these network design principles increase the chances of species and ecosystems surviving and adapting to global change.

The ambition of this proposal is considerable. However Marinet observes that there are weaknesses. One of these centres on fishing and the other on governance and enforcement.

In the case of fishing the report states [page 43]: The data revealed that at least 55% of the ocean is covered by fishing activities, a global footprint that is at least four times as large as that of agriculture, and it was estimated that fishing vessels travelled more than 460 million kilometres in 2016 — a distance equivalent to going to the moon and back 600 times, and [page 45/46] … it is only recently through new technologies such as satellite tracking and the use of AIS (Automatic Identification System) and vessel monitoring systems (VMS) that it has been possible to determine the composition of the high seas fishing fleet.

The four most commonly used fishing gears in the high seas are: longlines, purse seine, squid jiggers and trawls, with six countries (China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Spain and South Korea) accounting for 77% of the global high seas fishing fleet and 80% of all AIS/VMS-inferred fishing effort.

Longlines can be up to 100km in length and carry several thousand baited hooks. By contrast, a purse seine is a net set around a school of fish which is drawn up beneath them like a traditional purse.

Tuna fishing on the high seas takes high levels of unwanted, unmanaged or discarded bycatch. Precise estimates of bycatch are difficult to quantify for the high seas because of the difficulties of collecting data due to poor observer coverage, especially in longline operations. Above water, longline fisheries have been estimated to kill 50,000–100,000 seabirds annually despite implementation of mitigation methods and massive reductions in some fisheries, most notably in the Southern Ocean.

Of 61 species of seabirds affected by longline fisheries, 26 are threatened with extinction, including 18 of the 22 species of albatross. Sea turtles, marine mammals, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) and at least 650 species of bony fish also get caught on longline fishing gear.

The global tuna fishery is very large, with annual catches of tuna and tuna-like species levelling off at around 7.5 million tonnes after a maximum peak in 2014. The seven most economically important species of skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), yellowfin (Thunnus albacores), albacore (Thunnus alalunga), bigeye (Thunnus obesus) and bluefin (Thunnus orientalis, Thunnus thynnus, Thunnus maccoyii) are traded globally and, based on information gathered on tuna fisheries and markets for 2012 and 2014, believed to contribute at least US$42bn in end value to the global economy each year.

Purse seines are the most commonly used to catch tuna, and helicopters, bird sonar, GPS [satellite Global Positioning Systems] and drones are used to help boats to locate schools around which to set the nets. In addition, fish aggregating devices (FADs) are widely used to attract tuna and other target species which concentrate around them for the ease of fishing. FADs are simply floating objects such as logs or mats of seaweed and it has been estimated that between 81,000 and 121,000 of them were deployed globally in 2013, with at least a fourfold increase in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the seven years between 2007 and 2013.

Various negative impacts, including exacerbation of over-fishing, high catches of juvenile tunas, high bycatch of vulnerable species such as turtles and sharks, modification of tuna habitat and the introduction of litter into the ocean are all associated with tuna fishing using FADs.

May Lim and a group of researchers in the Philippines have modelled the effect of FADs in the western Pacific and concluded that “when the fishery is already over-fished, using FADs can only accelerate fisheries collapse”. As fisheries expanded further into the high seas, fishing gear reached into increasingly deeper waters, creating a linear increase in the mean depth of fishing of 62.5m per decade, corresponding to an increase of about 350m for the period since 1950.

Bottom trawling, which involves dragging a large net and heavy gear across the sea floor, is generally considered the most destructive fishing method and is known to significantly impact fragile deep-sea habitats. Slow growing and slow to reproduce deep-sea species such as pelagic armourhead (Pseudopentaceros wheeleri), orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), alfonsino (Beryx splendens), oreos (Pseudocyttus maculatus, Allocyttus niger) and grenadiers (Coryphaenoides rupestris) have all been targeted by this method, often with catastrophic results.

As an analogy, deep-sea bottom trawling is often compared to clear-cutting forest on land because both indiscriminately remove everything in their path, in the case of trawling destroying thriving communities that would have contained animals such as corals, sponges, sea stars, sea cucumbers and anemones. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has also noted the potential consequences of deep-sea trawling on biogeochemical cycles and concluded that it “represents a major threat to the deep seafloor ecosystem at the global scale”.

Since 2006, a number of UN General Assembly Resolutions have called on States to stop authorising bottom fisheries on the high seas unless sufficient action has been taken to prevent damage to vulnerable marine ecosystems and to ensure that fisheries targeting deep sea fish stocks are being managed sustainably. A review of the implementation of these resolutions in 2016 shows that significant shortcomings remain, leaving many areas containing vulnerable marine ecosystems open to trawling and many deep sea-species depleted.

As FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organisation] statistics demonstrate, the world’s fisheries are in a poor state. Ineffectual fisheries management is partly responsible, with high seas fisheries management failing due to a highly complex and fragmented governance regime which among other things is too slow and unwieldy to keep up with changes in fisheries practice.

In particular the RFMOs [Regional Fisheries Management Organisations] which manage particular fisheries in their appointed regions have shown poor performance. This can be attributed to factors such as: lack of fishing compliance with international rules, lack of enforcement capability, excess capacity and inappropriate subsidy of fishing fleets, prioritisation of short-term economic interest over long-term conservation and a lack of political leadership to engage effectively in multilateral cooperation.

An evaluation of the world’s 18 RFMOs noted they have “failed to contribute through consultation and cooperation to the optimal utilisation, rational management and conservation of the fishery resources of the Convention area”. In a study which examined how RFMOs measure up with respect to bycatch governance, it was found there has been nominal progress in transitioning to an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, including accounting for broader, indirect ecosystem-level effects of bycatch mortality.

While almost all RFMOs have conservation as part of their mandate, the priority of their membership has been for exploitation. As well as the unsustainable fishing that takes place under the auspices of RFMOs there is also the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or IUU fishing.

This practice of illegal fishing encompasses activities that violate national, regional or international laws such as fishing out of season; harvesting prohibited species; using banned gear or techniques; catching more than a set quota; and fishing without a licence.

Unreported fishing is that which is not declared, or is misreported, to the relevant authority or RFMO.

Unregulated fishing relates to fishing in areas where no regulations for this occur or on unregulated stocks, as well as the activities of vessels that are not flagged to a state. The unregulated category also includes the non-party problem whereby states which carry out high seas fishing fail to participate in governance arrangements for where they fish, effectively ‘freeloading’. In relation to this, it is worth noting that as of July 2018, there are 168 Parties to UNCLOS [UN Convention on the Law of the Sea] yet only 89 signed up to the provisions of the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA), which establishes general principles including an ecosystem approach, and specifically mandates the application of the precautionary approach to fisheries conservation and management.

In addition to the environmental problems of IUU fishing, the practice also has far-reaching social consequences that disadvantage legal fishers and can be associated with terrible practices such as slavery at sea and other criminal acts. Global losses from IUU fishing have been estimated at between US$10bn to US$23.5bn annually, which is between 10 and 22% of total fisheries production.

The problem of IUU fishing has received growing attention over recent years and there have been some positive moves, most significantly with the 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU Fishing which entered into force on 5th June 2016.

Therefore, as can be seen above, the 30×30 MPA Report (A Blueprint for Ocean Protection) is very clear about the huge adverse impact that fishing is having on the ocean, whether that fishing activity is legally undertaken or not. There are many pressures on the ocean at the present time, from climate change and acidification to pollution in its numerous forms to the emerging proposals for widespread deep ocean mining for minerals (see Marinet publication: Mining The Deep Ocean : Does catastrophe lie ahead?). However fishing has to rank amongst the first three in any list simply because it is destroying fish populations to levels of commercial, if not actual, extinction and is seriously damaging marine diversity and ecological structures in a widespread manner. Further, this over-exploitation of fish stocks is robbing future generations of mankind of a vital food resource.

Therefore one would expect this MPA Report and a putatively serious UN High Seas Treaty to be addressing the issue of fishing head-on. To do anything other than this is to admit a serious flaw in both the Report and the Treaty’s design.

The MPA Report states in its Executive Summary [page 3]: Areas intensively used by high seas fishing fleets were avoided [for MPA network design] to reduce possible disruption to fishing activity. An interim moratorium on seabed mining is proposed to ensure that options are left open as a network of protection is built – and [page 12]: The resulting network designs only displaced around 20% or 30% of existing fishing effort, demonstrating that networks representative of biodiversity can be built with limited economic impact. Many of the costs of establishment will in any case be offset by gains from protection, such as fish stock rebuilding and improved ecosystem health.

Therefore whilst this scientific/academic 30% MPA proposal for the global ocean has many strengths and is a peerless advocate of the importance of a comprehensive MPA network in the regeneration of the biodiversity and health of the ocean and similarly recognises the wrecking nature of current global fishing levels and practices, the 30% MPA proposal has baulked at the issue of restraint of the fishing industry. The 30% proposal has consciously designed a MPA network that largely leaves fishing areas outside its protected network of sites and thus is allowing the “economic function” of the fishing industry in its current form to continue to hold sway. In short, little changes.

Whilst one of the two principal weaknesses of the 30% MPA Report is its approach to fishing the other is governance. In other words, is there an international governmental structure, both in terms of administration and, crucially, in terms of enforcement which will deliver and manage the MPA network to ensure that the integrity of the whole ocean is respected? If there is not, all these proposals are almost meaningless from this perspective (preservation of the integrity of the ocean) and, probably worse still, an illusion which deceives by claiming to be something which it is not and never can be.

Governance is not an issue to which the 30% MPA Report gives anything other than fleeting attention until the very end in its Conclusion [page 80]:

The effectiveness of all high seas management, including MPAs, as well as monitoring, control and surveillance will be directly related to the mechanisms and governance structure established by the new UN-negotiated international legally binding instrument.

While technology will make it increasingly easier to monitor human use of ABNJ [Areas Beyond Natural Jurisdiction i.e. the High Seas], the political will to sign and ratify, and then adopt and enforce MPAs and management measures will be required.

In reality, coordinating the selection, establishment and management of a joined-up global high seas MPA network in a composite selection approach is probably impossible within the current fragmented regulatory framework. That view is supported by the failure, despite years of trying, to protect specific places such as the Sargasso Sea under the present governance system.

A new global institutional framework developed through an international legally binding instrument for ABNJ will therefore be required to facilitate MPA selection, establishment and management. Collaborating in MPA design across jurisdictions has also been shown to lead to substantial efficiencies over uncoordinated action.

Taking a global, rather than regional, approach to high seas MPA design through this new global institutional framework, would help minimise the total area that any future high seas MPA network would cover and its associated socio-economic impact.

Finally, effective high seas biodiversity protection will also require greatly enhanced management ambition and capacity outside of MPAs. The international legally binding instrument for ABNJ currently being negotiated by the UN presents the opportunity to augment and strengthen the ability of organisations that manage different areas of the sea and the human activities in it to effectively adopt and enforce sound regulations.

This would give industry clearer direction as to where it can and cannot operate, while delivering sustainable management in areas that remain open to human use.

It is clear that the 30% MPA report, whilst full of good intention with regard to the question of governance (how to establish and enforce respect for the ecological integrity of the ocean), is inchoate in its thinking as to the form this governance would take and how it would be delivered — other than to emphasise that it will require political will and expects the proposed UN High Seas Treaty to be the vehicle for this.

Thus the 30% MPA Report displays all the characteristic failings of the academic, scientific and, all to frequently, NGO community : they are not prepared to address the challenge of politics and how we actually deliver a world where the needs of the planet are foremost before all else. This is the unavoidable, imperative reality that politics from now on has to address. A politics which must be built on the uncompromising belief in the ecological integrity of the planet first, mankind and its economic wealth second.

Unless this is so, mankind is deluding itself because the reality behind our current economic model is little other than a fool’s paradise.

Marinet has set out a blueprint for the model of governance for the UN High Seas Treaty in its recent publication Is the new proposed High Seas Treaty up to the job? Marinet commentary, April 2019 which is a distilled statement of principles drawn from the Marinet supported publication Conserving the Great Blue : Overturning the Dominant Ocean Paradigm by Deborah Wright.

Essentially, we need to regard the ocean as sovereign in ecological terms. If we accept that future politics has to be based on the premise that mankind can no longer build a future for itself on this planet unless the primacy of the planet’s ecological integrity is respected absolutely, then it follows that all activities we undertake in the ocean have to be in accord with total respect for the ecological integrity of the ocean. In other words, the ocean is not a marine protected area in part (a network of places where that ecological integrity is respected and so managed) but rather the ocean in its entirety is a marine protected area.

This means no human activity in the ocean can take place which does not respect this fundamental integrity; and in the performance of that activity must display such respect. If it cannot then either the activity is never allowed to occur or if the activity violates the ocean’s integrity whilst actually operating, then it is compelled to cease.

In other words governance is universal throughout the ocean (no blind spots) and is always, without exception, subject to the full force of the law (judicial authority is absolute).

This requires the inclusion of the Crime of Ecocide as the fifth element in the UN Rome Statute along with a UN High Seas Treaty which establishes and empowers a governmental body via an Oceans Protocol with full administrative and enforcement powers and which acts in a manner similar to the way in which the UN Montreal Protocol (Vienna Convention) operates for the elimination of ozone depleting chemicals from the planet’s atmosphere. With these two pillars in position, administrative and judicial, then the High Seas Treaty can deliver the universal governance of the ocean which the new politics must deliver to secure an assured future for both the planet and mankind.

What we are talking about here is the ability to live on Earth in the Age of Consequences. In this Age, the present, we have passed beyond the tipping point — marked by a fundamental shift in the ecological order of the planet on land, in the ocean and in the atmosphere.

In this new reality things have changed fundamentally. In this new era, the Age of Consequences, the primary requirement is no longer to direct our intelligence to finding solutions which will prevent a fundamental shift in the ecology of the planet but rather, because this shift has already occurred and is irreversible, we must live empathetically with the ecology of the Earth whose core ecological dynamics we have irreversibly transformed. If we do not do this, we do not survive and we become another casualty as well as a primary agent in the forecasted sixth mass extinction.

The 30% MPA Report has not addressed this reality. It still believes that the marine protected area concept can serve as a palliative for an economic model where exploitation of the planet’s ecological integrity remains the norm; and, because it has not addressed the need for the institutions of global governance to understand that the imperative of evolution applies to them as it does to everything else, it has failed to see that the only solution lies in the whole ocean becoming a single marine protected area.

Thus the MPA solution in the 30% Report cannot work. Its networks of marine protected areas, both conceptually as an idea for the avoidance in the collapse of the ocean’s ecological integrity and practically as a tool which will first halt and then reverse that collapse, are not real. They are an illusion.

This is a hard truth. But until it is recognised, nothing will change.

Unless this happens we will continue to be confronted by such headlines as occurred in the 2nd March 2018 edition of the National Geographic : The World Has Two Years to Meet Marine Protection Goal. Can It Be Done?

This National Geographic report records a familiar story:

The UN is nearing its decade-long goal of protecting 10 percent of the global ocean by 2020. But the world may fall short.

Scientists agree that marine protected areas, or MPAs, are essential for environmental health: they ensure fishers have healthy stocks by preventing resource depletion; they protect endangered species; they make ecosystems more resistant to climate change; and they maintain biodiversity.

At a UN conference held last June [2018], the executive secretary for the Convention on Biological Diversity announced approximately 5.7 percent of the ocean was protected. But a new study published in Marine Policy paints a less optimistic picture.

As of early 2018, only two years away from the UN target, the world is not even halfway there, according to the study. (The assessment was supported in part by the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project.)

The scientists found that 5.7 percent figure also included regions that were in various stages of becoming marine protected areas (MPA). In some cases, the areas were simply being proposed. In others they were still under discussion and not fully approved.

“Calling an area that allows commercial fishing ‘protected’ is like calling a logging concession a ‘protected forest.’ It’s worse than an euphemism; it’s a lie,” says Enric Sala, study author and National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence who leads the Pristine Seas project.

In their own assessment, researchers found only 3.6 of the ocean was in an implemented marine protected area and only two percent of the ocean was in an MPA that was entirely restricted access.

“MPA is king of a catch-all term. There are a lot of different categories within MPAs. It could be anything from a national marine sanctuary that may allow commercial fishing all the way down to full protection, which is completely closed to all destructive activities,” says Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, an ecologist from Oregon State University and a study author.

Completely closing off a region allows scientists to use it as an experimental control, she says. With that, they can better assess the damage to marine areas that remain subject to human influence.

“The data is overwhelmingly conclusive that positive effects happen when you close an area,” she adds.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature sets international guidelines for MPAs. The IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas then acts like a recording system of who is adhering to these guidelines and where. This information is documented in the World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA).

“The challenge is that the WDPA has to report whatever countries report,” she says. “It may be that they announce [an MPA], but they’re really early on [in the process]. That’s part of what’s leading to some of the challenges in accurately accessing how much of the ocean is protected.”

As a remedy, the paper suggests that more transparency and accountability could help these large international organizations sift publicity stunts from tangible conservation.

“Countries are rushing to ‘achieve’ their commitments, and many countries … are already cheating and claiming protection, but they are not really protecting new areas,” says Sala. “The world must not accept bogus claims. They will not bring back marine life.”

Grorud-Colvert notes that raising the current two percent of protection to eight percent in only two years likely won’t happen. But if all the proposed areas actually do become implemented, 7.3 percent of the ocean would be protected.

Echoing Grorud-Colvert is one of her fellow study authors. “My personal view is that we’re not likely to make it,” says Rashid Sumaila, an environment economist from the University of British Columbia. “If we don’t even hit 10 percent, we’re far away from what we need.”

Thirty percent, he notes, is the real amount of protection scientists agree should be implemented in the ocean. The U.N. goal to reach 10 percent was a baby step to get there.

To understand why more countries haven’t acted to create MPAs, Sumaila says you have to look at the economics of marine conservation.

In remote regions — take Midway Atoll, the first U.S. MPA created under the Obama administration, for example — fishing is not a widescale operation.

In regions that do have massive fishing industries, establishing an MPA is more difficult.

A study published last month showed industrial fishing alone occupies more than half the global ocean, so conflict with the fishing industry and conservationists is a frequent source of friction.
“They want to front load the benefits,” he says of governments resistant to implementing MPAs. “In fishing communities life is hard. Income is generally low already.”

Subsidies, he suggests, are one way to ease the burden. Distributed efficiently, he says his own economic data has showed countries will receive a return on investment in the long-term. “It’s possible biologically and economically,” Sumaila adds. “The question is how do you organise it.”

There is a candour, observes Marinet, in the views of the academic/scientific authors of the National Geographic article which is to be greatly welcomed. It calls a spade a spade. It reveals that much of the talk, and particularly the commitment to creating a comprehensive and genuinely real network of marine protected areas, is presently little short of an illusion.

The authors do believe in something better, both in terms of overall MPA integrity and in terms of scope (the need for a 30% MPA network), but like others we have reviewed in this Marinet commentary they are at a loss to know how it is to be accomplished. They do not cross the political line, let alone theoretically explore what it would mean if they were to cross this line.

What crossing the line means is the governance of the world by a new economic order which is no longer ruled by “free market” capitalism or “authoritarian” capitalism but rather by a new economic model founded, both in terms of principles and practice, on what may be termed as EcoLogic.

This means that the primacy of the integrity of the ecological needs of the planet are to be regarded as a precondition for the existence of all human activity, whether that be use of the land, ocean or atmosphere. This precondition covers all forms of human endeavour and technology. In EcoLogic, the Earth’s Rights precede the Rights of mankind. We are no longer absolute in our actions, but subordinate to the Earth’s Rights; and the system of governance we design for ourselves has to make this subordinate position legally enforceable and beyond compromise.

This is the central issue the Proposed UN High Seas Treaty has to address.

This means that we recognise that the ocean is sovereign and that all the ocean, in every corner and at every depth, is a marine protected area whose ecological integrity is absolute. It means we recognise that the economic model for human activity for all future use of the ocean, indeed of the planet, is henceforth based on the primacy of the Earth’s Rights and the subordinate standing of the Rights of mankind.

To be clear, this new economic model is based on the principles of EcoLogic and no longer on variants of capitalism. Furthermore, all of this is incorporated into international law and is enforced without fear or favour.

This is the nature of the transformation that is required by living in the Age of Consequences.

This transformation is our mark in history which demonstrates that mankind has grasped the full meaning of our species’ own evolution because such now is the ecological dynamics of our planet that this is the precondition for our survival in the 21st century and beyond.

So, are the MPAs we are creating today real or an illusion?

It is vital that we do not avoid answering this question. In searching for the answer, it will lead us forward to ask the genuinely key question of whether mankind is destined to survive or perish — and in arriving at our and your answer to that question it is Marinet’s conviction that you will perceive what is needed, in the most profound existential sense, for us to access and enduringly embrace a life affirming answer.

Marinet Limited,
June 2019.

 


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