Embracing Yes/Also: Marine Protected Areas Are Not An Either/Or Proposition

Ocean science and conservation, like any human enterprise, is subject to its fair share of internal messiness from time to time.  As someone whose expertise and experience intersects several discrete domains (coral reefs, sharks, marine protected areas, and policy), I’ve witnessed plenty of dust-ups, arguments, and spats over the years.  And this week’s flurry of discussion instigated by a New York Times editorial on ocean protected areas is just the latest kerfuffle. In his op-ed, Bigger Is Not Better for Conservation, coral reef scientist and California Academy of Sciences curator, Dr Luiz Rocha, argues that large-scale, remote marine reserves are a disservice to ocean conservation.  It’s Dr Rocha’s perspectives, however, that seem more damaging.

Rocha’s argument hinges on four key points:

  1. The current tally of big, remote marine reserves is in low-conflict, easy to protect (ie, low-hanging fruit) areas of the ocean where human reliance upon them is negligible and therefore government willingness to protect is strong;
  2. There’s nothing worth protecting in these big, remote areas;
  3. More important, smaller, near-shore ocean areas with high levels of human use are in dire need of protection;
  4. Marine protected areas should be science-based (eg, protected zones should be guided by “sustainable catch limits” of commercially targeted species).

Let’s go one-by-one to see if any of these points hold water. [Note: For the sake of brevity, I’ll be using the acronym MPA frequently in this piece for “marine protected area,” but it will also serve as shorthand for “marine reserve,” “protected area,” “locally managed marine area,” or “marine managed area.”  I recognize that an MPA may not be managed or enforced, but let’s forego that technicality for the moment.]

POINT 1: “Big MPAs are easy and less consequential.”
As of today, there are approximately 20 large-scale protected areas across the ocean (ranging from tens-of-thousands to millions of square kilometers in protected area).  This includes a range from the Marianas Marine National Monument’s 16,400 square kilometers to the 1.15 million square kilometers of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i.  These MPAs may consist of fully-protected, no-take (no fishing/extraction) designation to protection that still allows multiple uses.  According to the folks at MPA Atlas, there are approximately 15,000 small, coastal MPAs around the world.  Some of these, like Cordelia Banks off the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras, encompass only 17 square kilometers.  Many are even smaller.  Totaling all of the massive/remote and small/near-shore MPAs together gets us to approximately 2% of the ocean under some form of protection.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, held in Hawai’i in September 2016, called for member nations to set aside “30% of each marine habitat” in “highly protected MPAs and other effective area-based conservation measures” by 2030, with the ultimate aim being ”a fully sustainable ocean, at least 30% of which has no extractive activities.

For rhetorical effect, I’ll reiterate that as of March 23, 2018, only 2% of our global oceans is protected, and 2030 is only twelve years away.

As someone in the MPA biz, I can testify that there are at present a small handful of big, deep-pocketed, international NGOs working on big international MPAs: The Pew Charitable Trusts, Conservation International, Oceana, and National Geographic. These folks have the gravitas, influence, and resources to capture heads of state attention and convene forums necessary to get things done.  You can bitch all you want about the pros and cons, but this is the reality.  Alongside the big NGOs, there are tens-to-hundreds of small to medium-sized NGOs that are working simultaneously on everything from big/remote MPAs to smaller/near-shore MPAs.  Sometimes the big NGOs work in concert with the smaller ones.  Sometime not.  It’s all site dependent.

Having worked on everything from massive MPAs to tiny MPAs over my career, I can say that none of them were “easy wins.”  So-called “low hanging fruit” may represent a unique opportunity in time.  You may have a receptive government or local community that welcomes the process.  It’s always easier to work with the willing than the resistant.  But every MPA effort in which I’ve participated involved strategy, identifying champions, public consultations, negotiations, community organizing, building political will, battling nefarious characters, rebooting strategy, sweating-out votes, and of course finding funds to support all of this.  If there are “easy wins” out there, big or small, I sure would appreciate someone pointing me in that direction.

Protecting big/remote areas or smaller/near-shore areas is not an either/or game.  This is not a binary proposition of doing one or the other.  It’s a yes/also.  We need to protect small, not so small, medium, larger, big, bigger, and massive tracts of the ocean.  We need to protect what is easy to protect, and what is harder to protect.  We must gather every bit of low-hanging fruit, and plan to reach the currently out-of-reach fruit.  MPAs occupy a spectrum or continuum, and we need to be prepared to work with everything along that spectrum.  Some NGOs will have a mandate (and talent) for pursuing big swaths of ocean.  Others are more tuned to work on local needs.  But there is a lot of real estate between the biggest and smallest MPAs for organizations, individuals, and yes, even FUNDERS to find their niche.

POINT 2: “There’s nothing worth protecting.”
This is just wholesale wrong.  What is Rocha considering as “worth” protection?  Certainly, there are species whose entire life cycle may be captured by the boundaries of an MPA.  Other species may only spend a portion of their lives within the boundaries of protection.  Protected areas are designed to factor in these variables.  But not all MPAs are envisioned around biological significance alone.  The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in North Carolina, the very first marine national monument designated by the United States in 1975, honors the historic significance of the shipwreck of the famed Civil War ironclad, USS Monitor.  Similarly, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the entire Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, including the 110 seamounts, open waters, and all life in that area are considered biocultural resources and linked to the Hawaiian people through environmental kinship.

The ocean as a cultural seascape is vital to Hawaiian identity, their being, and essential dimension to their cognitive understanding of the world.  The ocean waters in Papahānaumokuākea were an ancient pathway for a voyaging sphere that occurred between this region and the main Hawaiian islands for over 400-500 years (ca. AD 1300-1800).  The practice of traditional wayfinding and voyaging—recently popularized in the film Moana and which is one of the most unique living traditions of the world—requires protection of the entire marine environment and open waters, not just the islands and reefs, because it relies on biological signs and natural phenomenon, such as winds, waves, currents, and the presence of marine life and birds at key moments and locations.

At the same time as Papahānaumokuākea was successfully expanded in 2016 by President Obama, the State of Hawai’i also supporting the establishment of small, coastal community-managed makai areas, driven by and for the community.  Yes, both can happen at the same time and using the same human capital, as many of the same people fought for both the small makai areas and the big Papahānaumokuākea effort.

Big swaths of protected, healthy ocean also have a role in climate change mitigation.  Seventy one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean. It is the planet’s largest ecosystem and plays a crucial role as a climate regulator. The ocean’s role in the global carbon cycle is critical – it is by far the biggest carbon sink in the world; over the past 200 years the ocean has accumulated twenty six percent to half of atmospheric carbon emissions. The ocean has significantly reduced, and mitigated, the impacts of increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Considering all of this, large-scale, remote ocean protection cannot be driven by species-level/biotic considerations alone.

POINT 3: “There are more important, smaller places to protect.”
Importance is relative and subjective.  It is place-driven and context-heavy.  What is important to someone in Brazil, might be less so to someone in Hawai’i.  So instead of casting stones at our neighbors, perhaps we should recognize that there are seriously limited resources, conservation bandwidth, and political will, and try to triage our priorities.  I recognize that the reality is that not all NGOs/organizations like to play-well together.  Furthermore, some places and approaches are simply not tenable due to practical considerations and political and social realities.  Again, this is a reality of modern conservation.  But as I mention above, effective MPAs do not occupy one half of a binary state.  It’s not either small or large.  Remote or near-shore.  Fully managed/enforced or paper parks/un-enforced.  Every single MPA in existence occupies a position somewhere along a continuum of effectiveness.  Even an un-managed, unfunded, and unenforced MPA is a work in progress along that continuum.

POINT 4: “They’re not science-based.”
Science should help inform MPA zoning and designation.  No questions or arguments here.  But the science needed may at times be incomplete or lacking.  Many decisions around the world, particularly in developing nations, on “sustainable catch limits” are not acted upon because data is deficient.  Should we be expected to wait for the science to be decided and settled (whatever that might mean) before action/conservation measures can be activated?  And science is but one arrow in our quiver that we should use to scope, establish, and manage MPAs.  The social sciences and economics are also driving MPA priorities and planning.

I find an editorial like Rocha’s to be, quite frankly, dangerous.  Staking-out a claim on one side of a false dichotomy or constructing straw man arguments is the purview of graduate school.  I get it… Rocha would like to see more love shown to near shore/coral reef areas (including where he has worked in Brazil).  But what is the benefit to conservation as a whole to publish these half-baked propositions that large, remote MPAs are a waste of time in the pages of The New York Times and under the banner of an august and internationally recognized organization like the California Academy of Sciences?  We are not currently living in normal times, and this sort of rhetoric plays right into the hands of those keen to see less ocean protection, not more.

For the first time in US history, an administration is rolling back protections on national monuments, both land and sea.  Australia just this week has announced the possibility of cutting in half the protections for the Coral Seas MPA.  Conservation in one place in the ocean is not the enemy of conservation in another place.  And MPAs are not a binary switch of either big or small…  Local or remote…  Fully protected or not.  If we are going to get to the IUCN recommended target of 30% of our oceans under strong protection by 2030, we need to ramp up protections everywhere along the MPA continuum.  Yes/Also should become our mantra!  We must embrace a process of continuous improvement in our MPA work, not display a reflex of undercutting other conservation efforts.  And we need to keep our focus and attention on the real threats to a healthy ocean: over-fishing, illegal fishing, pollution, climate change, and lack of political will for action.

11 Replies to “Embracing Yes/Also: Marine Protected Areas Are Not An Either/Or Proposition”

  1. As someone who has fought for MPAs in Brazil and elsewhere in the world for the last 40 years (and never had the privilege of meeting mr. Rocha despite his claim to have been involved in the issue), and as a member of the Brazilian coalition of 37 civil society organizations plus industry representatives, scientists and public personalities supporting the recent establishment of large MPAs in Brazil, I am very grateful for this article. It vindicates our decades-long efforts to have BOTH coastal and oceanic Protected Areas established, more often than not with very little support from the same academics who are quick to decry and damage any attempt at achieving real-world results. Much remains to be done, but it’s people on the ground establishing MPAs who are doing it, not the émigrés with access to the New York Times to spread their unwarranted vitriol. Thanks again.

  2. MPA policy approach argument aside, I think this line: “Big swaths of protected, healthy ocean also have a role in climate change mitigation.” Is misleading and actually makes Rocha’s point. Coastal MPAs that protect sea grass beds and kelp forests mitigate carbon impacts a little bit, but open ocean MPAs do nothing to stop ocean acidification or climate change.

    Not to mention that wild fish are by far the least environmentally destructive animal protein to eat on the planet – no inputs, be it pesticides or freshwater, no destructive land-use change, & much lower co2 footprint (even lower than soy, nuts, & eggs). http://www.wri.org/resources/data-visualizations/protein-scorecard.

    There is an argument to be made that MPAs restricting fishing are more of a detriment to climate change and ocean acidification since they limit the amount of low-carbon protein that can be eaten.

  3. Great discussions. Even the critiques of Rocha are reflective of the views of good lot in the public who see no real merit in creating MPAs esp LMPAs. Over time in Kiribati and with continuous outreach, people begin to see the simple logic, i.e. preservation is better than destruction. Preservation in itself means doing no harm to ecosystem and wide variety of biodiversity of marine life…especially in remote areas…and this is easily viewed as a great thing. Science can play a part here but not necessary since logic for closure is clear and vivid.

    So while Rocha has all rights to express his or her views; these do not discourage us or hinder our sight to see the values of MPAs and LMPAs.

  4. A goal of many MPAs is to bolster fish populations both inside and outside of the reserve’s boundaries. If MPAs are able to meet this goal, then there can be fully protected swaths of the ocean as well as strong fisheries.

  5. Max, consumption of farmed animal protein is one of the biggest single causes of anthropogenic climate change. Granted that wild caught fish are a far smaller source but I would like to make two points.

    Firstly as there are far more people on this planet than wild caught fish can feed, would it be just the wealthy who would be able to afford them?

    Secondly, climate change isn’t the only issue we are having to deal with, loss of biodiversity is another big problem. Global fisheries are decimating fish stocks and so large areas where stocks can breed are very important, and will become more so in the future as consumption of animal protein has to decrease causing greater demand on ocean fisheries.

  6. The case for a large scale MPA as a climate refuge (beyond nearshore seagrass/mangrove carbon sinks) was made for the Papahānaumokuākea expansion by physical oceanographers, fisheries scientists, and climate scientists based on a few key studies (citations that helped build this climate reserve argument below).

    One role that big open-water MPAs serve as climate refugia involves range expansions resulting from sea temperature shifts. Scientists have documented a northward range shift in various species of fish in the northeastern U.S. with increases in surface water temperature. In the Pacific, the expansion of the Pacific Warming Pool due to climate change is expected to push fish north and east. Given this observed relationship, climate change can pose a huge threat to species that need very specific environmental conditions (e.g. temperature, prey availability, mates) in order to survive, therefore shifting their ranges could prove disastrous if they are being heavily fished. With these temperature and environmental perturbations expected to intensify in the Pacific, an expansion of Papahānaumokuākea could provide a more stable sanctuary for these marine species.

    A second role hinges on the reality that marine life acts as the “biological pump” of the ocean – converting carbon dioxide into living matter – and could serve just as important of a role as a carbon sink as the physical and chemical marine processes that drive the solubility of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This biological pump accounts for about two-thirds of the flux of carbon within the ocean. A key study focuses specifcally on the role of marine life in the carbon cycle. The study identifies eight key ways that life ranging from photosynthetic primary producers – that convert sunlight into essential building blocks – to the top predators of marine ecosystems act as carbon sinks. Most notably, this work highlights the role of food web dynamics and marine life biomass in carbon storage.

    Big swaths of protected, healthy ocean matter.

    Booth, D. J., N. Bond, and P. Macreadie. 2011. Detecting range shifts among Australian fishes in response to climate change. Marine and Freshwater Research 62:1027–1042.

    Molinos, J. G., B. S. Halpern, D. S. Schoeman, C. J. Brown, W. Kiessling, P. J. Moore, J. M. Pandol , E. S. Poloczanska, A. J. Richardson, and M. T. Burrows. 2015. Climate velocity and the future global redistribution of marine biodiversity. Nature Climate Change 6:83-88.

    Sunday, J. M., G. T. Pecl, S. Frusher, A. J. Hobday, N. Hill, N. J. Holbrook, G. J. Edgar, R. Stuart-Smith, N. Barrett, T. Wernberg, R. A. Watson, D. A. Smale, E. A. Fulton, D. Slawinski, M. Feng, B. T. Radford, P. A. ompson, and A. E. Bates. 2015. Species traits and climate velocity explain geographic range shifts in an ocean-warming hotspot. Ecology Letters 18:944-953.

    Perry et al. 2005.

    Hazen et al. 2012.

    Cheung, W. W., Watson, R., & Pauly, D. (2013). Signature of ocean warming in global sheries catch. Nature, 497(7449), 365-368. 228Sumaila, U. R., Cheung, W. W., Lam, V. W., Pauly, D., & Herrick, S. (2011). Climate change impacts on the biophysics and economics of world sheries. Nature climate change, 1(9), 449-456

    Pinsky, M. L., Fogarty, M. 2012. Lagged social ecological responses to climate and range shifts in fisheries. Nature Climate Change.

    D Laffoley et al. (2014). The Significance and Management of Natural Carbon Stores in the Open Ocean. IUCN.

    SJ Lutz and AH Martin (2014). Fish Carbon: Exploring Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services. GRID-Arendal and Blue Climate Solutions.

    D Laffoley et al. (2014). The Significance and Management of Natural Carbon Stores in the Open Ocean. IUCN; SJ Lutz and AH Martin (2014). Fish Carbon: Exploring Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services. GRID-Arendal and Blue Climate Solutions.

    Atwood, T.B., Connolly, R.M., Ritchie, E.G., Lovelock, C.E., Heithaus, M.R., Hays, G.C., Fourqurean, J.W., and Macreadie, P.I. 2015. Predators help protect carbon stocks in blue carbon ecosystems. Nature Climate Change. 5:1038-1045.

  7. Sure, an open ocean MPA can be a refuge for fish under changing ocean conditions – I don’t think that has anything to do with climate mitigation, though – that would be a climate adaptation issue.

    You are absolutely right that marine life plays an important role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, but the “key study” that identified 8 different ways presents a false equivalence. Phytoplankton and marine plants play an outsized role in carbon uptake – to compare them to whale falls and carbonate production in bony fish is…quite a stretch. Also, a more recent paper (Howard et al. 2017) concluded that, while marine fauna cycle carbon, they do not sequester it away and thus do not contribute to carbon mitigation.


    We should recognize that many of those 8 reasons are insignificant (or plain wrong) and focus on the two main parts of the biological pump (phytoplankton & marine plants) that are orders of magnitude more important.

    Marine plants were addressed in my original comment (coastal MPAs protect them, while open ocean ones do not) so let’s look at phytoplankton. Satellite mapping chlorophil concentrations as a proxy for primary productivity is the best way to tell where phytoplankton are concentrated – check out this map from NASA.


    You’ll notice that phytoplankton is concentrated in coastal areas, and open ocean MPAs are mostly barren. Furthermore, there is no evidence that fishing affects phytoplankton concentrations or health.

    I would restate here, again, that open ocean MPAs do nothing to mitigate carbon issues like climate change and ocean acidification and would probably be detrimental to mitigation by restricting the amount of low-carbon protein available to eat. The amount of consumed protein eaten per day should increase very slightly or remain about the same over the next few decades. It is important that consumed protein be as low-carbon as possible.

    I’m not saying big open ocean MPAs are inherently bad – cultural significance, like in Hawaii, is a great reason for preservation. I’m saying that offering carbon mitigation as a reason to implement large-scale MPAs is misleading at best and actively detrimental to mitigation efforts at worst.

    Open ocean MPAs may play a role in climate adaptation via refuge (as you pointed out), but Gattuso et al 2015 demonstrates that mitigation is much more important for ocean health.


    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the above, thanks.

  8. 1. No.

    2. I never said climate change is the only issue we need to deal with, but I would argue that it is, by far, the most important one. Biodiversity loss is a big problem… and climate change is probably the greatest long-term threat to biodiversity on the planet… mitigating climate change helps biodiversity.

    Global fisheries harvest fish stocks, of which 69% are sustainable. By weight, about 82% of consumed fish is sustainable. We certainly need better fishery management to get both of those numbers up to 100%, but I would not say global fisheries are “decimating” fish stocks. Fishery sustainability has been trending up for the past couple decades.


  9. The FAO report says the exact opposite of your claim:

    “Based on FAO’s analysis of assessed stocks, the share of fish stocks within biologically
    sustainable levels has exhibited a downward
    trend, declining from 90 percent in 1974 to
    68.6 percent in 2013”

  10. Thanks, I should have used different wording. I think the broader point I meant to make was that since 1990-ish, global catch has stabilized around 80 million tons (see figure 1 in that report), meaning we arent actively catching more and more every year even as population has increased by 50%. The 1990s saw a large push for fisheries reform and we are seeing lots of improvement around the world as management capacity increases. The United States collapsed many stocks in the early 90s, but now have the most sustainable stocks in the world. Much of this is due to capacity building that really ramped up in the 90s & 2000s.

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