Although the world's oceans make up nearly 75% of the planet's surface and provide 97% of the its habitable area, not even 4% of the ocean is protected by governmentally sanctioned marine protected areas (MPAs) *. While the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has set a global goal of protecting 10% of coastal areas by 2020, the United Kingdom's Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey, recently called for 30% of the world's oceans to be protected by the year 2030.
MPAs have been shown to maintain biodiversity by serving as a sanctuary for endangered species as well as immature sea life not yet eligible for commercial fishing. They can also preclude destructive human activities (such as bottom trawling), allowing ecosystems to recover. Many animals are able to safely grow and reproduce within MPAs that forbid human activities, which can increase the amount and size of fish caught in fishing areas adjacent to the MPA. It has also been suggested that MPAs can enhance resilience to environmental change (like pollution and warming). Ultimately, these protections support local communities that rely on healthy fisheries and ecosystems for their cultural practices, economies, and livelihoods.
Nearly 15% of the global population depends on seafood for protein, and according to professor of marine conservation, Dr. Callum Roberts, "protecting more ocean boosts prospects for fisheries. If you stop fishing an area, the fish quickly become bigger and more abundant, producing many times more offspring. These eggs and young fish spill into fishing grounds and increase catches. This means that by fishing less, in time it is actually possible to catch more fish, at less expense from more prolific stocks."
One challenge associated with this ambitious endeavor is the management of high seas fisheries. Nearly 60% of the global oceans are considered the high seas, which are not under the jurisdiction of any one country. These large swathes of water are often subject to overfishing and deep sea mining. For example, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued licenses to 29 contractors from 19 individual countries (including the United Kingdom) to survey these areas for mineral extraction and biotechnological purposes. Some of the more biodiverse sites include a range of seamounts found at the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone and a field of hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic Ocean called the "Lost City". Currently, only 1% of the high seas is protected from industrial operations.
Britain itself has protected 200,000 square miles of its own coastlines and is in the middle of assessing 41 proposals to implement new Marine Conservation Areas that span more than 12,000 square kilometers and protect numerous species including the short-snouted seahorse, stalked jellyfish, and peacock’s tail seaweed.
Said Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan, "it is imperative that we act now to save our ocean from unsustainable activities and protect its unique ecosystems which we still know so little about. This 30 percent global target to improve ocean management and protection is both ambitious and achievable and we encourage our international partners to take action now."
* Marine protected areas and marine parks do not offer sea life the same level of protections. Parks are often accessible for tourism and recreational activities, whereas MPAs are not. According to the World Wildlife Fun, most marine parks are not well-managed and/or unregulated.