Conservation & Science

Marine protected areas: a smart approach

Last August, U.S. President Barack Obama created (what was then) the largest protected area on Earth.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo by NOAA

Obama’s executive order, which came after numerous public meetings, more than quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The 500,000-square-mile area, surrounding a chain of northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is now protected from commercial fishing and resource extraction.

The monument hosts an abundance and diversity of wildlife, much of it unique to the area. Its expansion was an important step toward protecting more of the global oceans, and showing the world that the United States is committed to doing its part in marine protection.

While Papahānaumokuākea boasts a wide variety of ocean life, marine biodiversity—according to a new study co-authored by Kyle Van Houtan, director of science at Monterey Bay Aquarium—is even higher in some other parts of the ocean.

His paper affirms that marine protected areas are an effective tool for protecting ocean life in the face of rapidly accelerating global change. However, much work remains ahead.

This figure from Kyle Van Houtan and Clinton Jenkin’s study shows top global (A) and regional (B) marine biodiversity priorities.

A strategy for protection

Kyle and Clinton Jenkins, the study’s co-author and a biologist at Brazil’s Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (IPÊ), calculated the areas of the global ocean most in need of protection based on three key data sets: the distributions of nearly 4,500 marine species, the extent of existing marine protected areas, and the cumulative impacts from human activities.

“The task in front of us—to protect the ocean and its biodiversity—is daunting,” Kyle says. “The problems can be global and have many causes; there may not be easy scientific or political solutions. It seems difficult to know where to begin.

“With this analysis, we wanted to show that we do have tools, we do have data, and we do have some ideas about where we should focus marine conservation.”

The age of blue parks

Anyone who has stood at the granite walls soaring above Yosemite Valley can tell you that parks are beautiful—but Kyle is asking how well they preserve biodiversity.  And while protected land areas have been growing for more than a century, marine protected areas (MPAs) are still gaining steam.

In 2010, world leaders met to produce a set of conservation goals, known as the Aichi Targets, which aim to preserve marine biodiversity and build resilient ecosystems. One target called for countries to protect 10 percent of their coastal and ocean areas by 2020. The world moved one step closer to that goal with the October designation of the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, which at 598,000 square miles edged out Papahānaumokuākea as the world’s largest.

Coral reef ecosystem at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“The changes affecting the ocean today and in the future are unprecedented,” Kyle says. “For ecosystems to be resilient and bounce back from catastrophic changes, they need healthy, diverse plant and animal populations.”

His new study highlights the marine areas that would most benefit from protection.

“We know the ocean is under threat, and most of it is unprotected, but there is sufficient information to see a path forward,” Clinton says. “What we provide here is a blueprint of which places in the ocean appear to be most important for preventing species extinctions.”

In a previous study, Kyle and Clinton used a similar approach to calculate the conservation priorities for land areas in the lower 48 United States. They found a striking mismatch between the locations of parks and priorities.

“We discovered that the U.S. network of protected areas doesn’t overlap well with where most species are,” Kyle says. “With ocean conservation, we’re now where land-based parks were decades ago. There is political will to make meaningful progress—but where should we invest?

“We can learn from the mistakes we have made on land, and begin from a much more informed standpoint in the ocean.”

Three-rowed sea cucumber. Photo by Laszlo Photo

A fresh start

 Kyle and Clinton analyzed the distributions of nearly 4,500 marine species, including plants, fish, echinoderms (sea cucumbers), crustaceans, corals, snails, mammals, reptiles and birds. Within each group, they identified the most threatened, vulnerable and rare species. Then they examined how well these species are protected, and how human activities are affecting them.

Their results weren’t encouraging. On average, only 3.6 percent of marine species occur within existing protected areas. That number is even smaller for the plants and animals most in need of protection.

The major global priority, according to Kyle and Clinton’s analysis, is in the Coral Triangle—an area between Indonesia, Papua and the Philippines. The very top of the triangle, between Taiwan and Japan, is the primary spawning grounds for Pacific bluefin tuna, a vulnerable species researched extensively by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“Similar to on land, in the ocean a very small percentage of the area holds most of the biodiversity. If we are to prevent the loss of marine species, it is these special areas where we must focus conservation attention,” Clinton says.

The paper also identifies the most important areas to protect at regional levels—a tool that might help governments make savvy conservation decisions. The U.S., for example, could protect biodiverse areas in the Mariana Islands, Samoa, Puerto Rico and Florida.

 “One of our main goals in conservation is to prevent extinction. We want to know where we can save the most species through the established and successful tool of a protected area,” Kyle says.

“There remain very difficult problems ahead. But we can be a part of the solution. By bringing a lot of data to bear on the key issues, we can make progress, and we can plan ahead for resiliency in a future of much global change.”

Lisa Marie Potter

Learn more about our work for ocean conservation.

Featured image: Kingman Reef, United States. Photo by LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps. NOAA PS.2nd

One thought on “Marine protected areas: a smart approach”

  1. A systemic, science based approach in determining which marine areas to be protected is beautifully outlined in this paper. I hope that political will will enable us to accomplish that goal.


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