The Unfulfilled Promise of the World’s Marine Protected Areas

Biologists and conservationists maintain that establishing marine reserves — areas where fishing is off-limits or severely restricted — offers the best hope for recovery for our overstressed oceans. So why is such a small area of the world’s oceans protected?

This week the National Marine Protected Areas Center, a tiny division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was scheduled to release an eight-page fact sheet titled “Marine Reserves in the United States.” Lauren Wenzel, the center’s director, was kind enough to send me an advance copy.

It’s a telling document. The brief report confirms what ocean advocates have been saying for years: Far too little of America’s ocean areas are protected. A little more than 3 percent of U.S. territorial waters — 381,969 square kilometers — are protected at the highest level as marine reserves. But 95 percent of that area is contained in a single reserve, the 363,680-square-kilometer PapahÄnaumokuÄkea National Monument (formerly known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument) created by President George W. Bush in 2006. Without PapahÄnaumokuÄkea, marine reserves make up only one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. waters.

The report’s revelation, though, comes in what’s not listed. The Marianas Trench National Marine Monument, a massive marine reserve announced with great fanfare in January 2009 (it was the Bush Administration’s final-weeks bid for an environmental legacy), isn’t included in the report. Why not? Turns out it’s not a marine reserve after all. If you read the fine print of Bush’s executive order, you’ll find that the 95,000-square-kilometer Marianas Trench National Marine Monument protects the seafloor trench but not the six-mile-deep water column above it.

Welcome to the promising, confusing, and maddening world of marine reserves.

Marine reserves, sometimes called “no-take” reserves to distinguish them from the larger umbrella category of marine protected areas (MPAs), have been one of blue ecology’s most widely embraced concepts of the past 10 years. They carry the highest possible level of protection — no fishing, no touching, often no entry. They are the marine equivalent of U.S. wilderness areas or national parks and are viewed as one of the most powerful tools for rebuilding depleted oceans. NOAA director Jane Lubchenco is a big advocate of marine reserves; the celebrated oceanographer Sylvia Earle calls them “hope spots,” underwater versions of biological hot spots.

Yellow tang
Photo by Jeff Hunter
After Hawaii established no-collection zones in 2000, the density of yellow tangs increased by 57 percent.

There aren’t many of them. According to the Pew Environment Group, about 6 percent of the Earth’s land surface receives some level of natural resource protection, but less than 0.5 percent of the ocean waters receive the same consideration. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calculates a more generous figure of 1.17 percent — but still, it’s a pittance, and it’s a long way from the Convention on Biological Diversity’s goal of putting 10 percent of the world’s marine areas under MPA designation by the year 2020.

The good news: More marine areas are protected every year. In the mid-1990s, the IUCN put the number of MPAs around the world at around 3,000. An IUCN report last year put the number at 5,880, noting that the area covered had increased 150 percent since 2003.

The bad news: Nearly all MPAs are tiny, few of them have the high “reserve” levels of protection, and most lack the sharp teeth of enforcement. “Although it is not possible to develop an exact account, fully protected, no-take areas cover only a small portion of MPA coverage, while a large proportion of MPAs are ineffective or only partially effective,” the IUCN noted last year in its report, “Global Ocean Protection.”

Most marine reserves around the world were originally created small, as parts of existing national parks, or to protect specific areas like breeding grounds against the ravages of overfishing. But in the last few years a number of ocean advocates have championed a new strategy: Go big.

Pew’s Global Oceans Legacy project, for example, has been working for the creation of six massive marine reserves that would vastly increase the area of ocean under marine reserve-level protection. Three of Oceans Legacy’s targeted areas — in the Northern Hawaiian Islands, the Marianas Trench region, and the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean — have already been placed under various levels of protection. Three more are under consideration. A proposed 630,000-square-kilometer reserve would protect the waters around New Zealand’s remote Kermadec Islands. In Australia, ocean advocates are working to create a 900,000-square-kilometer marine reserve in the Coral Sea. The boldest proposal would put a whopping 5 million square kilometers under protection in the biologically rich Sargasso Sea, near Bermuda.

Studies indicate that reserves established a decade ago have allowed crippled populations of fish to recover.

Despite their ambitious size, the three proposed reserves have a real chance of happening. Australia and New Zealand, global leaders in marine protection, aren’t afraid to protect big pieces of ocean. Australia pioneered marine protection with the 1975 creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; in 2004, the Australian government strengthened the park’s protections by putting 33 percent of it off limits to fishing as a no-take marine reserve. Four years ago, Australia added 226,000 square kilometers of its coastline to its collection of marine reserves; that same year New Zealand listed 600,000 square kilometers of its water as MPAs.

The governments of Bermuda and the United Kingdom — who jointly administer the British overseas territory and its waters — are actively pursuing the Sargasso Sea proposal, and the British government has recently embraced the marine reserve concept in a big way. Last year the UK created the world’s largest marine reserve by banning fishing around 544,000 square kilometers of the British-owned Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Do marine reserves work? The short answer is yes, mostly. The scientific record is still young, but studies emerging from marine reserves established in the late 1990s and early 2000s indicate that marine reserves allow crippled populations of fish and other marine life to recover in the absence of human pressures, chiefly fishing.

Some of the most interesting work is being done by scientists at a marine reserve off the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. The research is being led by Brian Tissot, a Washington State University marine ecologist who’s been studying a 10-year-old Hawaiian state reserve since its inception in 2000.

Here’s the background: In the 1990s, the marine aquarium trade was killing off the yellow tangs of Hawaii. A coral reef fish the size of a silver-dollar pancake, yellow tangs are highly valued by aquarium owners. The commercial aquarium fishery off the west coast of the Big Island employed only about three dozen divers, but together they caught about 250,000 aquarium fish every year. Biologists estimated they were shipping half of all local yellow tang into the tanks of America’s dental offices.

The take grew so alarming that in 2000 the state of Hawaii stepped in and established a network of nine no-collection zones around the Big Island. These protected areas were a form of marine reserves — areas fully protected from all fishing, removal, or disturbance of marine life. And they weren’t small. The state closed 35 percent of the Big Island coastline to aquarium fish collection.

The surprise was this: A commercial fishery also flourished inside the marine reserve.

Commercial yellow tang divers weren’t happy with the closures, which shut them out of many of their most productive netting areas. But they abided by the new rules. And over the following decade, yellow tang flourished in the marine reserves; by 2009, the density of yellow tang had increased by 57 percent within the protected areas.

The surprise was this: The commercial aquarium fishery also flourished. Ten years after the marine reserves were established, the divers exported a yearly average of about 350,000 live fish, an increase of 70,000 or more over the pre-reserve years. The value of the fishery increased from $745,000 in 2000 to $1.27 million in 2009. “The total number of fish increased, industry value increased, and the feeling of economic well-being among fishers is high,” Tissot told me.

Some bugs remain to be worked out. In the areas that stayed open to fish capture, yellow tang declined by 45 percent, due to the tighter clustering of divers, an increase in the divers’ efficiency (power scooters, GPS units, and other new technology now help them net more fish faster), and the entry of more divers into the fishery. Tissot believes the outside-the-reserve depletion can be solved in part with a limit on new divers entering the fishery.

In fact there’s new evidence that the marine reserves are helping to replenish the open areas hit hard by the yellow tang divers. In a paper published in the December 2010 issue of PLoS One, Tissot showed that larvae from fish spawning inside the marine reserve were floating outside the reserve, effectively seeding areas up to 100 kilometers away.

“This is the first time that larval dispersal has been shown to be one of the mechanisms underlying what we call the seeding effect of marine reserves,” said Mark Hixon, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and former chair of NOAA’s Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, who was one of Tissot’s co-authors. “Populations build up inside the reserves, those fish spawn, and their larvae drift out and rain down on fished areas outside the reserves.”

His research, Tissot said, sends “a strong message about marine reserves. These things are really working.”

But if they work so well, why aren’t more being created? The short answer is that fishermen, in general, hate them. Or at best they distrust them. Marine reserves are usually set up in the most welcoming fish habitat, which anglers, of course, consider the best fishing spots. But scientists and conservationists point out that unless more marine reserves are established, there will soon be no fishing spots.

In the Marianas national monument, the water above the seabed is unprotected and remains open to fishing.

Fishermen can be powerful political players. “Fishing closures are unlikely to be adopted in areas of highly valuable commercial fishing or those near large fishing-dependent populations,” Jay Nelson, director of Pew’s Oceans Legacy campaign, wrote last year. “Therefore, the most feasible sites are in remote areas that for various reasons have not yet been the target of large-scale commercial fishing or other extractive activities.”

In the U.S., a number of states are considering establishing new marine reserves, spurred on by an increased awareness of the ocean’s plight and the recent green energy rush to industrialize offshore wind and wave power sites. California is in the final stages of a decade-long redesign of its marine protected areas system. In Oregon, the state has established two very small marine reserves that it labels “pilot projects,” and three other potential reserve sites are under consideration.

Bernie Bjork, a retired commercial fisherman from Astoria, Oregon, who spent the past year fighting over one of the reserves, sees the creation of a marine reserve as one more nail in the coffin of Oregon’s commercial fishing fleet. “Since 1999, 80 percent of the trawl fleet’s fishing grounds off the coast of Oregon and Washington have been closed down,” he told me. He’s not an unreasonable guy. A few years ago he worked with Environmental Defense to help establish quota systems on the West Coast. But the politics of the whole process frustrated him. “They said they’d allow boats to come in, but you can’t fish. And then they said the crabbers could come in, but not the trawlers. They’re going to use ‘adaptive management,’ which means they can change the rules at any time. It really got confusing.”

When it comes to marine reserves, everything is negotiable, and confusion is common. There are few clear hard-and-fast rules as there are with terrestrial wilderness designations, partly because the ocean is so much more dynamic and complex, and partly because there’s no congressional act establishing marine reserves as there is for federally protected wilderness. While the designations given to marine protected areas — ecosystem reserves, marine sanctuaries, marine reserves, marine monuments — may be terms of art to bureaucrats, to the rest of us they’re confusing and alienating.

And few areas are as confusing as the Marianas, the U.S.-administered region near Guam. Back in 2008, when Bush Administration officials were trying to create the Marianas national monument, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, objected to its fishermen being locked out of the proposed reserve. In the end, White House officials cut a deal that put only the Marianas Trench itself — the actual seabed — in the monument, leaving the water above it unprotected and open to fishing.

“I know all of this is confusing,” one U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service official told me. “It took a while for us to figure it all out, too.”

Currently, marine reserves have high-profile advocates like Sylvia Earle, Carl Safina, and Jean-Michel Cousteau. They have great momentum both in the United States and around the world. What they lack is a statement of clear bedrock principles expressed in beautiful language. The U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964 laid out a few simple rules for what could and could not happen in a federally protected wilderness. Perhaps equally importantly, the act famously defined wilderness, in almost poetic terms, as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Ocean advocates are great at listing the benefits realized by marine reserves. They’re not as good at delineating exactly what should and shouldn’t be allowed in them. Clearly, marine reserves are a great idea. Researchers like Brian Tissot are finding proof that they actually do what we hoped they would: revive depleted marine ecosystems. What the marine reserve movement needs now is clarity — and perhaps a touch of poetry.