Our oceans have been overexploited for decades - unsustainable fishing, oil and gas exploration, and plastic pollution are only some of the human influences that have left their mark. The effects of climate change are creating even more pressure on marine species and habitats. Marine biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate, and we need decisive action to reverse this worrying trend.
But today, less than 8 percent of the oceans are legally protected, and only 2 percent are really off-limits for fishing and other human activities. A global target of 10 percent by 2020 has not been reached, also not in Europe.
Marine protected areas can help replenish marine populations. They are especially important for vulnerable species facing extinction, and for degraded habitats. Protected areas limit human influences to allow marine wildlife to recover. There is extensive research and practical evidence showing how protected areas can rebuild marine life, safeguarding biodiversity and making the oceans more resilient. This is especially important for mitigating increasing effects of climate change.
But marine protected areas can only provide concrete benefits if they are effectively implemented. Unfortunately, this is not the reality at the moment, and many marine protected areas exist only as ‘paper parks’.
In Europe, while 12.4% of the seas were designated for protection in 2019, only 1.8% of those areas had actual means of being protected - by an existing and effective management plan. A recent study has shown that in 59% of EU marine protected areas, bottom trawling is taking place. This is one of the most destructive fishing techniques, by which heavy nets are dragged across the sea floor in an effort to catch fish. Bottom trawling damages the sea floor and many species that are not meant to be caught also end up in the net.
To succeed, marine protected areas need to have clear conservation objectives, well-designed and implemented management plans, cooperation between all actors (authorities, fishers, scientists and civil society), proper evaluation and monitoring mechanisms, and transparency and accountability in reporting. The designation of protected areas is only the first step.
The upcoming COP15 summit, or 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity), will adopt a new global framework on biodiversity, setting the course for global action in the next decade. This summit is the opportunity for world leaders to set ambitious protection targets in line with scientific advice - to protect at least 30% of our oceans. But setting targets is only the first step - without implementation on the ground, protected areas only exist on paper, and there are no conservation benefits. Ideally, marine protected areas should be counted towards protection targets only if they have management plans in place.
Not reaching protection targets is sometimes due to a lack of political will, but often it is due to a lack of financial and human resources, lack of expertise, and lack of guidance on how to implement targets. The global post-2020 framework should create conditions that enable easier implementation: universally agreed upon definitions of what protection means in practice, adequate allocation of resources, and clear guidance based on the best available scientific advice.
Benefits of marine protected areas are also greater when they are designed to be in coherent networks. This is why there should be global coordination from the outset to strategically distribute them and maximise the benefits of each protected area. Decision-makers need to make sure protected areas are strategically designated, covering biodiversity hotspots, allowing migratory species to thrive, and protecting vulnerable species and habitats.
As previous protection targets were not reached in practice, this time global leaders need to put more effort into creating the conditions that will allow protected areas to function in reality, and not merely as ‘paper parks’. The scale of the twin biodiversity and climate crises demands urgent and decisive action - there is no more time for empty promises.
Send an email to your minister and ask them to push for effective action to protect our oceans!