How Close Is the MPA Field to Meeting Its Global Targets?

MPA News

Last decade, multiple international goals were set for the protection of oceans through MPAs, with deadlines for reaching them. For some of the main goals, the deadline is now just two years away:

  • At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), national leaders agreed to create representative networks of MPAs worldwide by 2012.
  • At the 2003 World Parks Congress, IUCN members called for a global system of MPA networks to exist by 2012, including "strictly protected areas" amounting to at least 20-30% of each habitat.
  • In 2005, a subsidiary body of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) called for 10% of all marine and coastal ecological regions to be conserved in MPAs, also by 2012.

When we last reported on the field's progress toward these goals, the trends were not promising (MPA News 7:5). At the time (five years ago), an academic analysis of worldwide MPA designations indicated the CBD goal would not be met until 2069. Even worse, trends indicated the World Parks Congress goal would not be met until 2085 at best.

In the past five years, however, the MPA field has experienced the designation of some massive protected areas that have substantially increased global MPA coverage, including in the Chagos Islands (MPA News 11:6) and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (8:1). And several governments have accelerated their designation of MPAs with the WSSD and CBD commitments in mind. Russia is among the latest to announce plans to expand MPA coverage, citing CBD commitments (see Notes & News, this issue). This past May, the parties to the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) formally endorsed the development of a network of MPAs in the Southern Ocean by 2012 to meet the international targets.

How much closer the MPA field is now to meeting the targets is unclear. Answers are expected this October when the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre will co-release an updated assessment of global progress on ocean protection. The assessment will coincide with the CBD's 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10), to be held in Nagoya, Japan.

Partial answers are already available from the World Database on Protected Areas, which provides year-by-year statistics on protected area coverage from 1990 to 2009 (www.wdpa.org/Statistics.aspx). However, the statistics only consider MPAs within a country's territorial sea (out to 12 nm), not within its much larger Exclusive Economic Zone (out to 200 nm). And the figures are broken down only by country and geographic region, not by habitat or ecological region.

Meeting a target for high seas MPAs

Any assessment of MPA coverage relies in part on how one defines the term "marine protected area". This is particularly the case for the high seas, where regional fisheries management organizations are increasingly closing off areas to bottom-contacting gear to protect sensitive seafloor habitats. Do these gear closures - some of which are temporary and most of which still allow fishing for pelagic species - count as MPAs?

The question is relevant to another conservation target set last decade at the World Parks Congress: that at least five ecologically significant MPAs be designated on the high seas by 2008. The deadline passed two years ago with little global notice. But there are now roughly two dozen fishing closures in effect on the high seas, according to researchers at the Institute for Marine Resources & Ecosystem Studies (IMARES) in The Netherlands. (Their animated map of the closures, viewable in Google Earth, is available at www.highseasmpas.org.)

So does this mean that at least one global target for MPAs has been met - albeit one that was not widely promoted? Jeff Ardron, director of the High Seas Program at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, says that it all depends on if you define a fishery closure as an MPA or not. "In any case, protections are now starting to be applied to the high seas," he says. "Regardless of whether they are permanent or of a fixed term, there is still an important new precedent here with the recognition that large areas of the high seas do require enhanced protections."

For more information:

Jeff Ardron, Marine Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, DC, US. E-mail: jeff.ardron [at] mcbi.org