British and US marine scientists say that the race to designate ever-bigger marine national parks in remote parts of the world could work against conservation.
In an commentary timed to coincide with President Obama’s announcement of the huge extension of a marine park off Hawaii, the authors argue that the creation of very large marine protection areas (Vlmpas) may give the illusion of conservation, when in fact they may be little more than paper parks.
It is not enough to simply cover the remotest parts of our oceans in notional ‘protection’ – we need to focus on seas closer to shore, where most of the fishing and drilling actually happens, said Peter Jones, a marine researcher at University College London.
Co-author Elizabeth de Santo, an assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, added that the push for quantity over quality threatens to undermine sustainability.
There are concerns that marine conservation aims could be undermined by this focus on a few big areas. The marine biodiversity target is about much more than the proportion of the seas that are covered, she said.
In the past five years over 20 huge new marine parks have been designated by countries, including Britain, in response to calls by marine scientists to protect more of the oceans.
The Papah?naumoku?kea park off Hawaii, which will cover 582,578 square miles and include the world’s longest and most remote chain of coarl islands, is by some way the world’s biggest, covering an area larger than all US country’s national parks combined.
The authors question the motives of the conservationists. Every time there is a new ‘leader’ in the size stakes, it is feted… giving the impression of a competitive edge. This race has been enthusiastically supported by conservation campaign groups and donors, and many governments have joined in, all keen to gain the green credentials associated with remote VLMPAs, says the paper in the journal Marine Policy.
But other marine scientists this week defended the size of the VLMPAs. Size is often a critical component of effectiveness. What is needed is for the conservation NGOs to wake up to the fact that size isn’t everything, and to push equally hard for representative, equitable, effective, local, nearshore protected areas, said Nature Conservancy marine researcher Mark Spalding, in email correspondence.
The global target, agreed in 2010 at the Convention for biological diversity meeting in Japan, is to designate 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. But what has happened, say the authors, is that countries have taken the politically easy route, creating vast parks in remote places without taking into account their conservation value or their ability or countries’ willingness to police them.
There is now a great imbalance between a few giant protected areas and the many thousands very small ones which together cover only 3.27% of the global marine area, they say. Without remote VLMPAs , the 10% target would be even further from being reached, said Jones.
The authors emphasise that they do not discourage the designation of vast remote MPAs, but fear that by focusing on size could divert attention, political will and resources from the need for smaller MPAs in seas that are being overfished.
[Their] vastness and remoteness pose major enforcement challenges. Whilst emerging satellite surveillance technology can help detect illegal fishing vessels, there are still challenges in detaining such vessels through interception by a fisheries patrol vessel, which are very expensive to operate in such vast distant areas, they say.
Last year the UK said it would create what was then the world’s largest continuous marine reserve around the Pitcairn islands, and another huge protected area was designated around Ascension Island in January 2016. Chile, France and New Zealand have all made similar moves turning the waters surrounding their remotest island territories into huge nature reserves.
From the perspective of governments, it is clear that remote VLMPAs are win-win, in that they gain green credentials and contribute to each country’s progress towards the Aichi  target.
Why go through the politically and economically expensive process of designating relatively small MPAs around the mainland when you can designate remote Vlmpas in overseas territories with minimal costs and many gains?, the authors ask.
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