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Now is our chance to deliver on the 30% ocean protection target

Marine parks need to be big enough to safeguard wide-ranging species, like the sharks being studied here. Manu San Felix/National Geographic Pristine Seas Expedition, Author provided

Top scientists, senior government managers, industry representatives, conservationists and even some nations’ presidents are currently in Sydney for the World Parks Congress. This major international meeting happens only once a decade, and provides a critical opportunity to share the latest scientific knowledge and management of protected areas, both land-based and marine. It is also a time for assessing progress and reviewing targets that drive the world’s conservation reserves.

The latter can be a bit tricky. The hosts of the congress include the New South Wales and Australian governments – both of which could until recently have claimed to be making great, if not world-leading, progress towards securing the necessary balance between what we take and what we conserve in our oceans.

But despite the best available science, both governments have recently chosen to reduce this progress to at best a standstill, in the case of the federal government’s decision to scrap previous plans for new reserves, and at worst a full about-face, with NSW allowing recreational fishing into existing “no-take” marine parks.

Were this just an Australian phenomenon, it would be bad enough. But global progress towards achieving the marine target has been excruciatingly slow. Currently, less than 3% of the world’s ocean is protected in marine parks, with only 1% afforded full protection in no-take sanctuaries. Is it any wonder that marine parks have yet to stem global declines in marine biodiversity?

Global marine protected area coverage is still low.

The World Parks Congress provides a critical opportunity to reaffirm the global commitment to protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans in highly protected marine parks.

Existing targets

A key outcome at the previous World Parks Congress, in Durban in 2003, was a pledge to place 20-30% of the world’s oceans in no-take marine sanctuaries. This target was set on the basis of a very clear recognition that healthy oceans are essential to human well being, and that healthy oceans need marine parks.

This is underpinned by decades of science that supports the design and establishment of marine parks and demonstrates their ecological benefits. But since the Durban congress, further research, much of which is Australian-led, has shown that marine parks also deliver economic benefits. Here’s how:

  • Marine parks support commercial and recreational fishing. Researchers led by Hugo Harrison from James Cook University have shown that, across an area of some 1,000 sq km, the highly protected green zones of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park exported 83% of young coral trout to fished reefs.

  • Marine parks reduce the cost of climate change by improving ecosystem resilience. Amanda Bates and colleagues have found that Tasmanian temperate reefs in marine parks are less likely to be invaded by tropical species than areas open to fishing, an important factor given the ability of tropical invaders to disrupt reef health.

  • Marine parks support ecosystem recovery in the face of environmental catastrophes. A study led by Andrew Olds found that coral reefs devastated by freshwater runoff in the 2011 Brisbane floods recovered more rapidly and more fully if they were inside the Great Barrier Reef’s no-take green zones, compared with those elsewhere in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Australia’s Centre for Policy Development has also published studies on the value of the “ecosystem services” that Australia’s oceans provide us for free – such as nurseries for fish and opportunities for recreation. In its report, former World Bank economist Caroline Hoisington calculated that the national network of marine protected areas proposed in 2012 could provide services worth A$1.2 billion a year, making a total of A$2 billion when added to Australia’s existing marine parks.

Building on success

We know what it takes to make a successful marine park. We need significant areas of full protection in no-take sanctuaries, because partial protection (that is, allowing some users into the area) does not work for conservation. We need to invest adequately in enforcing them. And the marine parks need to be large, so that species are buffered from other ocean uses, and to ensure that wide-ranging species are protected.

Now is the time to build on the rising tide of marine park establishment. The United Kingdom protected the Chagos Islands in 2010, the United States recently announced protection for its Pacific Remote Islands, and Palau has announced its intention to close its waters to foreign fishing, and to allow limited domestic fishing only in certain small areas.

Returning to the opening irony of hosting the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia was a global leader by putting in place the world’s first national network of marine parks – right through the ocean territory that Australia manages – our Exclusive Economic Zone – the world’s third largest.

Australia’s network of marine parks is a world-leader, but progress is in danger of stalling. Centre for Conservation Georgraphy, Author provided

This global leadership is now at risk with the Australian Government having suspended the network pending a review, initiated despite more than 10 years of consultation and strong scientific support.

It’s time to be bold, both in Australia and globally. We need to undertake a step change in our approach to marine protection, reinforcing the target of effective protection for 30% of the world’s oceans as determined at the Durban congress more than a decade ago.

The science is clear; the benefits are well documented. Healthy oceans mean healthy economies, and healthy oceans mean marine parks.

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