How MPAs can help mitigate impacts of climate change via coastal blue carbon, “fish carbon”, and more

When nations gathered in Paris last December to forge a pact on climate change, the agreement's original text made no mention at all of oceans. Not only did this oversight ignore 71% of Earth's surface; it also overlooked the fact that marine ecosystems act as an enormous climate control system.

The seas regulate the concentration of atmospheric CO2 worldwide by absorbing and storing it in a variety of ways. A healthy, resilient ocean - where there is abundant plant life to convert CO2 to oxygen, and abundant animal populations to store carbon in their shells, bodies, and wastes - may be key to helping mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Marine protected areas can play a role in fostering that healthy, resilient ocean. To be sure, addressing the enormous threat of global climate change will require much, much more than just MPAs. But MPAs do offer legitimate ways to store carbon and to offset some of the impacts of a changing climate. And practitioners are starting to explore some of these opportunities.

MPAs and coastal blue carbon

There is 50 times more carbon in the ocean than in the atmosphere (https://oct.to/Zk6). Most of the ocean carbon - about 98% - is dissolved as organic and inorganic matter in the deep ocean and seafloor sediment. Once carbon is at such depths, it generally remains stored for the long term. The rest of the carbon exists in oceans' surface layers, from where there is regular exchange with the atmosphere. For example, at least half of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine plants, which absorb CO2 and convert it to O2 through photosynthesis.

When carbon is absorbed and stored by oceanic plants, it is called blue carbon: the storage removes carbon from the atmosphere for years or decades or longer, thus helping to counter the impact of climate change. Mangrove forests, salt marshes, and seagrass beds are examples. When these habitats grow, they capture and store carbon as living plant material and in the sediment below them. When the habitats are destroyed, however, much of their carbon is released back to the atmosphere and ocean.

"MPAs as a management tool play a very important role for blue carbon ecosystems," says Dorothée Herr, IUCN's coordinator of the International Blue Carbon Initiative, which helps develop management approaches and engage governments on the issue (http://thebluecarboninitiative.org). "By protecting these areas, MPAs help reduce and avoid carbon emissions from blue carbon ecosystems. And when the MPAs involve active ecosystem restoration - such as of mangroves, saltmarshes, and seagrasses - they also help increase carbon sequestration."

Herr cites a 2015 paper by Daniela Miteva of Duke University (https://oct.to/Zku) that evaluated the effectiveness of protected areas in Indonesia at conserving mangroves and reducing blue carbon emissions. The findings: MPAs reduced mangrove loss by about 140 km2 between 2000 and 2010, and avoided blue carbon emissions of approximately 13 million metric tons (CO2 equivalent).

"The goal of coastal blue carbon efforts is to incentivize better management of these systems using a variety of climate change policies and financial incentives," says Herr. These approaches include the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, which creates a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, and offers financial incentives for developing nations to foster conservation and enhancement of their forest carbon stocks (http://www.un-redd.org). IUCN released a report in January 2016 on using climate finance and other financial mechanisms to support coastal wetland programs and projects: https://oct.to/ZkL

Some MPAs are already assessing how blue carbon can factor in their sites' services and, potentially, finances. In the Dominican Republic, the 550-km2 Montecristi National Park hosted blue carbon research conducted by Counterpart International, a US-based NGO. That research, which quantified the amount of carbon stored in the park's mangroves, has served as a cornerstone for the ongoing development of a Blue Carbon NAMA (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action) for the Dominican Republic. The NAMA will eventually provide financial mechanisms and incentives for local communities to sustain and expand mangrove coverage in and around protected areas nationwide.

"Most of the Dominican Republic's mangrove resources are located in protected areas," says Paul Guggenheim, Counterpart's country representative. He notes a national ban on clearing of mangroves within protected areas is regularly enforced. The designation of the MPAs has allowed local stakeholders and government agencies to develop a clear institutional and legal framework to conserve the mangroves.

Guggenheim adds, though, that other blue carbon ecosystems such as estuarial wetlands and seagrasses are in both protected and unprotected areas in the Dominican Republic. Thus unprotected areas must also be considered as part of a holistic national strategy. "While MPAs are a valuable tool, complementary national laws and international agreements are also invoked in the country's approach to conserving sources of blue carbon," he says. For example, the national law that created the Ministry of Environmental and Natural Resources repeatedly states the importance of conserving mangrove ecosystems.

In Costa Rica, the 306-km2 Térraba-Sierpe National Wetland, which contains roughly 40% of the nation's mangrove area, hosted blue carbon research in 2012. The study was the first-ever ecosystem-level carbon inventory conducted in the Central America/Caribbean region.

Miguel Cifuentes Jara, a scientist with Costa Rica's Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), led the Térraba-Sierpe research, as well as later studies of other mangroves in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama. "As I've collected more data and shared it with other researchers and decision-makers, interest in blue carbon has increased," he says. "My working group supported the development of a draft blue carbon policy statement for Costa Rica in 2014-2015."

He notes that because Costa Rica's forestry law is so stringent - no land use change from forest to other uses is allowed, inside or outside protected areas - it is difficult to say whether protected area status is essential for blue carbon in Costa Rica ("...although it may very well be essential elsewhere in Central America," he says). Costa Rica's net balance of forest cover is positive. That being said, blue carbon could eventually be good for Térraba-Sierpe's management: there is an independent initiative underway, promoted by Germany's international development organization, to develop a blue carbon-based financial mechanism for the park and other MPAs in Costa Rica (https://oct.to/Zkz)

There is no "one size fits all" blue carbon solution or mechanism suitable for every country or project, says IUCN's Herr. It is up to countries, with the help of IUCN and others, to assess what type of blue carbon policy and financial incentives best fit their national circumstances, taking into account the coastal management policies and practices - including MPAs - that are in place already. "Blue carbon cannot happen in isolation to the conservation and management efforts already happening on the ground," she says.

The emerging science of "fish carbon"

A 2014 report by GRID-Arendal and Blue Climate Solutions added a new term to the field of climate change mitigation: fish carbon. The report - Fish Carbon: Exploring Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services (http://www.grida.no/publications/fish-carbon/) - looked beyond the blue carbon of coastal areas. It highlighted the direct relevance of marine vertebrates, including fish and marine mammals in the open ocean, to climate change mitigation via an array of natural mechanisms. It also stressed the importance of conserving marine vertebrates in order to protect their mitigation services.

The report, which aimed to stimulate further work on the topic, outlined eight mechanisms for fish carbon:

1. Trophic Cascade Carbon: Food web dynamics help maintain the carbon storage and sequestration function of coastal marine ecosystems (e.g., how a kelp forest is maintained by herbivory and predation).

2. Biomixing Carbon: Turbulence and drag, associated with the movement of marine vertebrates, causes enhanced mixing of nutrient rich water from deeper in the water column toward the surface, where it enhances primary production by phytoplankton and thus the uptake of dissolved CO2.

3. Bony Fish Carbonate: Bony fish excrete metabolized carbon as calcium carbonate (CaCO3) enhancing oceanic alkalinity, potentially providing a buffer against ocean acidification.

4. Whale Pump: Nutrients from the fecal material of whales stimulate enhanced primary production by phytoplankton, and thus uptake of dissolved CO2.

5. Twilight Zone Carbon: Mesopelagic fish feed in the upper ocean layers during the night and transport consumed organic carbon to deeper waters during daylight hours, where it is released as fecal pellets.

6. Biomass Carbon: Marine vertebrates accumulate and store carbon in the ocean as biomass throughout their natural lifetimes, with larger individuals storing proportionally greater amounts over prolonged timescales.

7. Deadfall Carbon: The carcasses of large pelagic marine vertebrates sink through the water column, exporting carbon to the ocean floor where it becomes incorporated into the benthic food web and is sometimes buried in sediments (a net carbon sink).

8. Marine Vertebrate Mediated Carbon: Marine vertebrates consume and repackage organic carbon through marine food webs, which is transported to deep waters by rapidly sinking fecal material.

"Although in very early stages, the science suggests that the contribution of marine vertebrates to carbon capture and storage may be significant," says Angela Martin, co-author of the report with Steven Lutz. "This would potentially allow for protection of marine biodiversity for carbon services, using the precautionary principle."

It is not hard to see the potential links between fish carbon mechanisms and the protection that can be provided for vertebrates by MPAs. Lutz says MPAs will be a very important management option for conserving, restoring, and enhancing fish carbon services. "MPAs and fish carbon could benefit each other if the financial and intrinsic value of fish carbon can be harnessed to support and inform sustainable management policies such as MPAs," he says.

It may take some time to get there: quantification of any one species's contribution to carbon capture and storage, and net carbon impacts, remains to be done. Martin and Lutz say the scientific community and policy-makers are not yet ready to make the leap to action on fish carbon. "In this vein, we have developed a number of targeted research projects, including one that will consider the spectrum of specifically whale carbon services in the Cook Islands, which can be used to inform MPA management there," says Lutz. They are currently seeking funding for these projects.

Dorothée Herr, IUCN, Germany. Email: Dorothee.HERR [at] iucn.org

Paul Guggenheim, Counterpart International, US. Email: pguggenheim [at] counterpart.org

Miguel Cifuentes Jara, CATIE, Costa Rica. Email: mcifuentes [at] catie.ac.cr

Angela Martin, Blue Climate Solutions, The Ocean Foundation, US. Email: angela.martin [at] bluecsolutions.org

Steven Lutz, GRID-Arendal, Norway. Email: Steven.Lutz [at] grida.no

Box: Protecting healthy wetlands as a defense against extreme weather events

Coastal wetlands can be an important source of blue carbon, as described in the adjacent article. But that's not the only role they can play in helping to mitigate climate change. Mangrove forests in particular protect upland areas against flooding and erosion, as caused by sea level rise and storms. With extreme weather events expected to become more frequent due to climate change, and with sea levels already increasing, healthy mangrove ecosystems will grow ever more important to coastal communities.

For resources on how mangroves reduce wind swell and waves and reduce storm surge along coasts, go to http://coastalresilience.org/our-work/habitats

Box: More resources on climate change and the relevance of MPAs

"Protection of our oceans must go hand-in-hand with the fight against climate change", editorial by Tommy Remengesau, Jr., President of Palau
https://oct.to/ZkD

The Blue Carbon Initiative
http://thebluecarboninitiative.org

Blue Carbon Portal
http://bluecarbonportal.org

GEF Blue Forests Project
http://www.gefblueforests.com/

http://cakex.org

Coastal Blue Carbon manual: methods for assessing carbon stocks and emissions factors in mangroves, tidal salt marshes, and seagrass meadows
https://oct.to/ZkR

Paris Climate Agreement
http://unfccc.int/files/home/application/pdf/paris_agreement.pdf

Seychelles project combines ocean planning, climate change adaptation, and debt restructure

In Seychelles, a unique project is underway. It links a restructuring of some of the island nation's international debt with a financial mechanism to support adaptation to climate change, namely through improved marine and coastal ecosystem management. That management will include a marine spatial plan for the Seychelles' 1.37-million-km2 EEZ in which up to 30% of the area will be designated for high and medium levels of biodiversity protection.

Presented by Seychelles officials at the Paris climate summit in December 2015, the project is fairly complex.

The debt restructuring, facilitated by The Nature Conservancy with the involvement of the Paris Club of creditor nations and South Africa, includes using private investment to buy back US $30 million of Seychelles debt at a discounted rate. In turn, the Seychelles government agrees to: complete a legislated marine spatial plan; create the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT) to fund implementation of the plan as well as other conservation and climate adaptation projects; and pay back the private investors over 20 years. The flow of funds is explained here: https://oct.to/ZkE The main outcomes of the marine planning process will be a legislated marine spatial plan with gazetted marine protected areas and management conditions, and an implementation plan that includes monitoring and enforcement connected to funding from SeyCCAT. The climate adaptation elements may involve coastal defense strategies, coral reef restoration, and other mechanisms. For more information: Joanna Smith, Marine Spatial Planning Science Manager, TNC Canada - Global Oceans Team. Email: joanna_smith [at] tnc.org The Seychelles Marine Spatial Planning website http://www.seychellesmarinespatialplanning.com/ The Seychelles Debt Swap https://oct.to/ZkC Swapping Seychelles debt for ocean conservation https://oct.to/Zka UK intends to designate large no-take MPA around part of Ascension Island; UK’s Pitcairn Islands MPA on track for 2016 designation The UK Government has announced its intent to designate a large no-take MPA around part of Ascension Island, a remote and lightly populated UK territory in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Equator. Although formal declaration of the MPA's boundaries may not happen until 2017 or later, the UK Government and Ascension Island Government are taking a first step this year, closing an area covering 234,291 km2 (or 52.6%) of the island's waters. This closure is intended to allow research to scope the eventual boundaries of the MPA. The UK Government promised last year to create a "blue belt" around each of the country's 14 overseas territories. The Ascension announcement is the latest move in that direction. The UK designated an MPA around the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean in 2010 (MPA News 11:6) and around the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands in 2012 (MPA News 13:5). In 2015 the Government announced its intent to designate one around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific (MPA News 16:4). Ascension's newly closed area comprises everything within 50 nautical miles of the island and all waters south of 8 degrees south. The area was selected to create a buffer around ecologically important inshore areas, while also including seamounts. Commercial fishing will still be allowed north of Ascension Commercial fishing, primarily by foreign longline fleets, will continue to be allowed to the north of the island but will be monitored to ensure best practices are used, including a ban on shark finning and catch restrictions on certain vulnerable shark species. Vessels will be required to carry de-hookers and dip nets to support the live release of incidentally caught seabirds, turtles, and sharks. In parallel, Ascension Island has enacted a strengthened Fisheries (Conservation and Management) Ordinance 2015. This new legislation provides the legal framework to prosecute any illegal vessel, or any licensed vessel fishing in contradiction to its licensing terms, with a maximum fine of £2 million (US$2.8 million). The improved licensing regime also ensures adequate safety provisions (e.g., mandatory life jackets for all on board, in-date flares, life rafts, etc.), thereby improving vessel standards.

James Duddridge, UK Minister for Overseas Territories, said the eventual fully protected reserve will comprise at least 50% of Ascension's maritime zone.

Article on use of satellite data to combat illegal fishing

The New York Times has published an article on fisheries enforcement in Palau and the growing role that satellite technology is playing in that enforcement. The article "Palau vs. the Poachers" is at https://oct.to/Zk9. Palau passed legislation in 2015 to designate a 500,000-km2 no-take marine reserve, closing roughly 80% of the nation's waters to fishing and mining. The closure is being phased in over five years.

From the MPA News vault: Features and news items from yesteryear

Five years ago: January-February 2011 (MPA News 12:4)

• Comparing Two Methods of Building MPA Networks: One Site at a Time vs. All at Once
• Autonomous Vessels Offer New Tool for MPA Research and Enforcement

Ten years ago: January 2006 (MPA News 7:6)

• Sacred MPAs: Where Protected Areas Hold Spiritual Value for Stakeholders, and How This Affects Management
• A Year After the Tsunami: Surin Marine National Park, Thailand

Fifteen years ago: January 2001 (MPA News 2:6)

• In Galápagos, Clashes Between Fishers and Managers Jeopardize Conservation Efforts
• Coelacanths Discovered In S. African MPA; Tourism to Follow?

For these and all other issues of MPA News, go to https://mpanews.openchannels.org/mpanews/archives