Nations have just one more year to reach the global marine conservation goal to protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020. Although 7 percent is already legally protected, many new declarations are massive, offshore areas. Some conservationists argue these offshore achievements fail to protect more critical coastal waters and may even be aggressive ocean-grabs by colonial powers.
The goal to legally protect 10 percent of the ocean was ratified under the Convention of Biological Diversity in 2010, and in 2015 it was added to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. According to the World Database of Protected Areas, although 7 percent of the ocean is protected, only 20 marine protected areas account for 70 percent of that area.
Offshore areas have significantly fewer stressors than coastal areas, including fishing, tourism, development and mining and host considerably less biodiversity. By contrast, coastal coral reefs are home to 25 percent of all marine species.
Because of the diversity in both uses and species, governments have a difficult time finding compromises to effectively declare and sustainably manage coastal areas, but they can easily make headlines and reach their targets by sectioning off large areas of deep sea.
The colonization of marine protected areas
Ecological concerns are not the only issue. Many critics also believe political — and colonial — power dynamics are behind these declarations. In recent years, the United States, Britain and France have declared large protected areas in their island territories, while declaring very few at home. The U.S. has less than 1 percent of continental waters under legal designation, while 43 percent of its colonial ocean territories are under protected status. England has just 2.9 square miles of marine protected areas but controls 1.5 million square miles around its territories.
Control and displacement in the Indian Ocean
In the 1960s, Britain maintained the Chagos Archipelago islands in the Indian Ocean, even after granting independence to nearby Mauritius. In order to make a naval base, the British forcibly removed 2,000 citizens who have spent decades demanding to be allowed to return to their homeland and continue their traditional fishing practices. In 2010, Britain declared the islands a protected area, and suddenly, peoples’ traditions became a crime. Despite official claims that the protected area had nothing to do with preventing displaced people from returning to their homeland, leaked documents revealed an explicit connection to this motive. In 2019, the International Court of Justice at The Hague declared Britain’s actions wrongful and ordered the island to be handed back to Mauritius.
Why prioritize coastal areas?
Larger protected areas are praised for their ability to preserve more space for migratory species like whales and tuna and for protecting deep sea areas from future exploitation. The problem, however, is when large offshore declarations distract attention from the harder work of protecting coastal zones. The declaration of protected or managed coastal areas requires compromise from many different stakeholders, including transportation, businesses, hotels, local fishers and coastal residents. Unsustainable development, pollution and competing interests exacerbate environmental degradation in coastal areas and require explicit management legislation and compliance — a feat that many governments lack the capacity to take on. In fact, only 5 percent of all marine protected areas have implemented management plans.
Enric Sala, a marine ecologist with the National Geographic Society, argues that protected area declarations that aren’t accompanied by management plans are “false and counterproductive” achievements that look good on paper but do nothing to protect the long-term sustainability of ocean resources.
Money and management
The lack of local government resources and investment means that the majority of marine conservation activities are funded and implemented by foreign conservation groups and private philanthropists — the majority of whom are American. According to Fred Pearch, a journalist with Yale Environment 360, “Some see such philanthropists as planetary saviors; others as agents of a creeping privatization of one of the last great global commons.”
Again, foreign powers have jurisdiction and decision-making power over foreign waters and what indigenous communities can and cannot do. Many local groups are pushing back against this invasion. John Aini, an indigenous leader in Papau New Guinea explained in an interview with MongaBay about the decolonization of marine conservation: “I’ve basically given up working with big international nongovernmental organizations, basically given up networking with them. And we are doing our own thing now with funding that’s available, and funding from people that understand that we are in touch, that we own the land, the sea, we know the problems of our people better.”
What is the right way to protect the ocean?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution and no way to make all marine conservationists and ocean users agree, but positive examples of protected areas do exist. Last year, Honduras declared a marine protected area in Tela Bay, which includes 86,259 hectares of coral reef. Although it is relatively small at only 300 square miles, the coastal protected area is a model for its outreach strategy, local management committee and “managed-access fishery” program that supports coastal residents.
Belize also became the first country to implement a nationwide, multi-species fishing rights program for small-scale local fishers that is incorporated into the country’s intricate network of protected and locally managed areas.
The key to successful legal protections is more science- and community-based conservation, not what New York Times contributor Luiz A. Rocha calls “convenient conservation” to meet numbers, make headlines and ignore realities and power dynamics on the ground — and under the sea.