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A third of world’s largest marine protected areas exploited: Study

A third of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPAs) are indulging in destructive activities such as industrial fishing, a global study reveals.

HQ Team

June 21, 2024: A third of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPAs) are indulging in destructive activities such as mining and industrial fishing, a global study reveals.

The World Database of Protected Areas lists more than 18,000 MPAs across about 30 million square kilometres (or about 8%) of the global ocean. 

The 100 largest MPAs overwhelmingly account for most of this total area – about 26.3 million square kilometres (or about 7.3%) of the global ocean. 

Researchers headed by the Marine Conservation Institute in Seattle, Washington, found that about 6.7 million square kilometres are yet to be implemented or actively managed.

“There are 18,000 MPAs, but a hundred of them make up 90% of the area,” said director Beth Pike, of the Marine Protection Atlas the study’s lead author. “These are the big needle movers.”

Isolated overseas territories

A third of these protected areas’ expanse offered high or full protection or 2.6% of the global ocean footprint, which is likely to yield meaningful conservation benefits.

Most of the large, fully and highly protected areas were situated in remote areas or isolated overseas territories, leaving important habitats and species unprotected and vulnerable throughout much of the ocean.

The United States, for instance, has 98.6% of its well-protected areas entirely in its territories far offshore.

Another third of these territories allowed destructive activities, such as mining and industrial fishing, making them inherently incompatible with conservation. 

Over 9.7 million square kilometres — nearly 37% — of the studied area was found to allow highly destructive, industrial-scale activities that are not compatible with conservation. 

“This mismatch between the intended goals of an MPA and the likelihood of achieving those outcomes raises concerns about the efficacy of these areas,” according to a statement.

No regulations, management 

Pike said without regulations or management, these areas were no different from surrounding waters and could not deliver conservation benefits.

Including these areas in the current tally of marine protection results in a misguided understanding of human impacts on the ocean and marine conservation progress, according to the statement.

A quarter of the MPAs they analysed were termed “paper parks”— which meant that while these ocean spaces had been officially proposed or designated as protected, they had yet to implement any formal conservation measures.

“MPAs can deliver significant benefits to people, nature, and the planet, but unfortunately, we see vast gaps between the amount of ocean covered by MPAs and the strength of those protections in many cases,” Pike said. 

“Quality—not just quantity—should indicate progress toward reaching the goal of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.”

30 by 30

In December 2022,188 governments agreed to protect 30% of the world’s lands and waters by 2030—the 30×30 initiative—in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted during the United Nations Biodiversity Conference.

“Growing understanding, support and momentum toward area-based global targets such as 30 by 30 are crucial for moving the dial on ocean conservation – but only provide meaningful progress when effective,” said Dona Bertarelli, a philanthropist, ocean advocate, and Patron of Nature for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Well-designed, managed, and enforced MPAs can provide enormous benefits for both people and nature. Now is the time for collective action – before it’s too late for our ocean and planet.”

Marine Conservation Institute president, Dr Lance Morgan, said: “With six years remaining to meet the 2030 target this report clearly shows us the urgency with which we need to designate and implement effective conservation areas that will deliver on the commitment of the Global Biodiversity Framework.”

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