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The Many Benefits of Marine Reserves: Q&A with Pew’s Jay Nelson

  Recently, while working on an article for National Geographic Traveler, I had the opportunity to interview Jay Nelson, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Ocean Legacy project. His group seeks to conserve and protect marine ecosystems by helping to establish large no-take marine reserves, where extractive activities like fishing and drilling are prohibited. To...

Jay Nelson at Gastineau Channel in Juneau, Alaska. Photo: Heather Bradner


Recently, while working on an article for National Geographic Traveler, I had the opportunity to interview Jay Nelson, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Ocean Legacy project. His group seeks to conserve and protect marine ecosystems by helping to establish large no-take marine reserves, where extractive activities like fishing and drilling are prohibited. To date, they have helped protect nearly 600,000 square miles of ocean through the creation of 3 no-take marine reserves (Chagos Marine Reserve; Coral Sea Marine National Park; Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument), and the establishment of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, where seventeen percent of the waters (16,000 square miles) are fully protected.

In the following Q & A, Jay talks about why no-take marine reserves are important, how they might benefit tourism, and what some of the challenges marine conservation faces if it is going to catch up with its land-based counterpart.

Q: It seems as though “marine protected areas” and “marine reserves” are in the news a lot lately (e.g., Australia’s Coral Sea, California’s network of MPAs, the Caribbean Challenge). We have known that the ocean is in trouble for a while, why does this all seem to be happening now?

A: The health of our oceans is getting worse, not better, and more people around the world are beginning to notice. Overfishing, pollution, and coastal development, among other things, are contributing to the troubled state of our oceans. It is a disturbing fact that we may be permanently impairing the ability of our oceans to bounce back to health and produce an abundance of high-quality seafood. Recent studies have shown that if we reduced the intensity of fishing and restored healthy fish populations, the oceans could actually produce more fish than they do today.

Marine reserves, particularly those that are fully protected, are a proven means of safeguarding the marine environment and the life it contains. Fully protected marine reserves work because they set aside areas of the oceans as a buffer against the widespread mismanagement and degradation taking place around the world. With fully protected reserves and the resilience they provide, some places in our oceans will have a chance to maintain healthy populations of fish and other marine life.

Q: Why should travelers know about the creation of these (and other) marine protected areas? How might MPAs benefit travelers/tourists?

A: Tourism is a growing economic use of our oceans. People want to travel to places that have beautiful scenery, healthy ecosystems, and diverse populations of fish and wildlife. We only have to look at the number of nature shows on television to see how much the public responds to the natural world.

Tourists like to visit special places even when the protected areas are remote, often because of their remoteness. The governor of Hawai’i supported the designation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument even though she knew that it was unlikely to attract visitors due to its remoteness. However, people know about the incredible fish and wildlife populations of the monument through television, magazine articles, and visitor centers, and that is a direct benefit to Hawai’i’s image. The governor’s support was based on her understanding that tourists care that special places are protected and will reward destinations that are responsible stewards of the environment.

Photo: Coral Sea Marine National Park
GOL recently helped establish the Coral Sea Marine National Park. Photo: Lucy Tripett


Two years ago, our Global Ocean Legacy project polled potential visitors to New Zealand and, as part of the poll, asked participants if they would be more likely to visit New Zealand if they knew that it had created the largest fully protected marine reserve in the world—even if they couldn’t visit it. The answer for many participants was yes. Similar results were also reflected in a recent survey we did in Bermuda. The bottom line is that tourists want to visit countries that have protected their environment. In the future, as more and more people live in urban areas, a “green” brand will be an ever more important lure. However, that concept has only recently been applied to the oceans.

Q: Where is this trend headed? Is the Convention on Biological Diversity’s target to protect 10% of the ocean by 2020 a guiding goal? Do you think it is achievable?

A: Unlike land environments, where more than 10 percent has been protected, in the oceans today, less than 1 percent is fully protected. Put another way, more than 99 percent of our oceans are open for extractive uses, such as fishing, oil drilling, and the like.

There is a big difference between marine protected areas (MPAs), which are defined by many people as any area that is “managed,” and marine reserves, where extraction of resources is prohibited. Many MPAs are managed primarily for fisheries and the benefits to the ecosystem often are questionable. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend for nations to declare very large MPAs that don’t improve management or ocean protection. It’s unclear how much such MPAs will benefit the world’s oceans. When it comes to ocean protection, the difference between window dressing and true conservation is often not communicated well to the public.

The gold standard for MPAs is to establish fully protected areas—usually called marine reserves. Science has shown that these fully protected areas provide significantly greater benefits to the surrounding ecosystem than do partly protected MPAs. If the question is, “Can we achieve protection for 10 percent of the oceans by 2020 through the establishment of fully protected marine reserves?” the answer is no better than “maybe.”

Photo: Chagos Marine Reserve
Chagos Marine Reserve. Photo: Alasdair Harris


Worldwide, Global Ocean Legacy has played an instrumental role in helping to establish fully protected marine areas spanning four times the size of California (1.55 million square kilometers, or more than 597,000 square miles) including the world’s three largest fully protected marine reserves: the Chagos Marine Reserve (640,000 square kilometers, 247,000 square miles) a UK overseas territory in the Indian Ocean; the recently declared Coral Sea Marine National Park (502,000 square kilometers; 194,000 square miles) off Australia’s northeast coast; and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (363,000 square kilometers; 140,000 square miles) in the northwest Hawaiian Islands.  The last of these three is larger than the entire U.S. National Park system.  Together these and other Global Ocean Legacy projects have more than doubled the area of ocean fully protected from extraction.

This indicates a growing momentum for ocean protection and yet, even these vast areas amount to only about half of 1 percent of the world’s oceans. It would take over 50 reserves comparable in size to the Chagos to reach the 10 percent goal.

If we are to achieve the 10 percent target, it will require establishing very large marine reserves both within the waters of individual countries and in international waters, which make up two-thirds of the ocean. Without new marine reserves in international waters, something that is very hard to achieve given the lack of effective international law and enforcement, we are unlikely to be able to achieve the 10 percent target by 2020.

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