To reduce global overfishing, we struggle to nourish sustainable fishing through better regulations, monitoring and enforcement, by eliminating subsidies and destructive fishing methods, and by protecting coastal fishing communities and involving them in co-management.
At the same time, we are establishing more and larger Marine Protected Areas – MPAs. The total area protected has doubled since 2010. This is good news.
Currently, there are about 6000 MPAs around the world, varying immensely in size as well as in what actually gets protected.
Using his executive authority just as Presidents Bush and Clinton did before him, President Obama now is creating the largest MPA yet, this one in the South Central Pacific. The area is already partly protected as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, but it will now become a lot larger, expanding from 224,000 sq km to 2,017,000 sq km – a little larger than Mexico – and it will become a lot more protected, prohibiting all commercial fishing.
The new MPA lies southwest of Hawaii and includes the ocean around Palmyra Atoll, Howard and Baker Islands, Kingman Atoll, and Wake Island (of World War II fame). It is so remote that the only commercial fishing there is for tuna – about 3% of the central and western Pacific catch now occurs there, and will have to shift. Remote indeed.
In fact a huge amount of what has been protected globally lies in the Pacific Ocean – the Coral Sea and around New Caledonia, the Great Barrier Reef, Papahanaumokuakea (in nw Hawaiian waters), and soon around both the Pitcairn Islands and Palau. All are huge MPAs, ranging from 360,000 sq km to 1.3 million sq km. Not surprisingly, most of them are also in the EEZs of remote and often sparsely populated islands.
If it weren’t for the growing stresses of climate change, the South Pacific would be the safest region on the planet for tropical organisms to live. Despite the challenges of enforcing protective regulations where there are few people, little land, and lots of ocean, this is all very reassuring.
What if we look globally instead of just South Pacifically? Only about 1.17% of the world’s total ocean area is protected, and only about 2.86% of the world’s EEZs are protected. Since an MPA rarely means no fishing, just that some protection from some use occurs, even those low numbers are misleadingly high: of all the area covered by MPAs, only 8% is actually ‘no-take’, truly protected from fishing.
Where a lot people actually live, on the crowded coasts of our continents, MPAs are so much harder to create. Those that exist are usually small, multi-use, and not isolated. The resistance to MPAs by commercial fishing, industrial users, residential users, everyone with any kind of stake, can be great.
At the other extreme, on the High Seas beyond the 200-mile EEZ limits of the world’s coastal countries, there really are few constraints and regulations, despite efforts at international cooperation. Protecting a lot of the South Pacific is possible only because of the many remote islands that exist there. The rest of the Pacific as well as the North and South Atlantic Oceans are a different matter.
Enforcement of existing or imagined protection remains the greatest challenge – but in coastal regions it could be done for much less than coastal nations currently spend on subsidizing their fisheries.
Meanwhile, dreams of protecting the High Seas drift closer to reality as discussions about High Seas no-take regions continue, even at the UN. Imagine making 60% no-take, enforced through automatic monitoring of all fishing vessels.
The conversation about MPAs is now also broadening to encompass ecosystem protection – safeguarding ecosystem services, including stronger links with coastal communities.
Obviously we have a long way to go to adequately protect our marine resources from ourselves, and getting there may look impossible. But it isn’t.