Once every ten years the world’s conservation leaders gather in some corner of the world to talk about protected areas. Parks are the bedrock of conservation, the firmament on which all the rest is built so these meetings matter. The latest has just drawn to a close in Sydney, Australia, ending with the ‘Promise of Sydney’, a somewhat cheesy package for a roadmap for the next decade of conservation effort.
Increasing protection of the oceans is a flagship element of the Sydney Promise. The meeting adopted a new target: to protect 30% of all of the habitats in the sea by 2030 in strictly protected marine parks. This represents an increase in ambition from the 20-30% target adopted at the Durban World Parks Congress of 2003. It also throws into stark focus just what a mountain we must climb to get there. The present cover of marine protected areas (MPAs) is estimated to lie between 2.1% of the sea and just over 3%, depending on whether or not you allow fishery closures as MPAs.
Some argued for a lower target, arguing that 30% was simply too much of a stretch to be feasible. But the view that prevailed was that it was the job of the World Parks Congress to follow the science and set the bar where it should be. There are other fora where political considerations have greater sway, such as the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which set a target of 10% coverage of marine protected areas by 2020 at its Aichi, Japan meeting of 2010.
There has been much discussion about the merits and drawbacks of percentage targets for protected areas. What can be in no doubt is that they have motivated vigorous effort to create protected areas around the world, both on land and sea. But the Aichi target was vague, stating only that we should protect coastal and marine areas, whereas the Sydney Promise is specific in two important ways. It emphasises establishing networks of MPAs that are representative of the full sweep of biodiversity and which offer high levels of protection against exploitation and harm. These two caveats are critical to avoid the empty promise of paper parks put in the wrong places and given minimal protection.
We in the UK have been enthusiastic in pursuit of international targets to protect the sea. We are in the midst of an effort to establish a national network of Marine Conservation Zones, with 27 sites recently gazetted in England and a further 30 in Scotland. Sadly, none of them has yet been given any new protection (as of November 2014) and the writing on the wall is that too little is on offer for them to produce any meaningful chance of recovery from more than two centuries of decline. What kind of a protected area, one might ask, would permit the continuation of the highly destructive practices of bottom trawling and dredging? Only a politically expedient paper park. The course towards wishy-washy, fake MPAs that we are on now will do nothing for marine life.
At present, the UK has but 1/100,000th of its waters given the high level of protection called for by the World Parks Congress. But we have within our grasp the opportunity to create a world leading network of MPAs. They will only succeed, however, if they are given the high level of protection necessary to drive recovery of degraded habitats and depleted fish stocks. That means complete protection from all destructive fishing gears across their entire extent, and a large helping of strict protection from all forms of exploitation. Only genuine protection brings real results. There is no free lunch.
Professor of Marine Conservation, University of York and Blue Marine Foundation Trustee