Changing Planet

What if Conservation Were the Default for the Ocean?

Mantas in Komodo. Photo by Eva Pet, 13 years old

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are part of the management toolbox that can ensure sustainable use of the oceans and provide the world with fish proteins. Yet, even as benefits of MPAs related to food security, ecosystem services, and livelihoods are known, we currently fail on our commitments to protect 10% of the oceans by 2020. Perhaps we need to look at the problem through a new angle: what if you woke up one day and all the oceans were protected? From now on, ocean users would have to make their case to convince governments of their need to have space allocated for their activity.

I like to imagine that I wake up one day and all the Coral Triangle oceans and coastal ecosystems were managed in a large MPA with multiple sustainable use zones and with 30% of the coastal areas and oceans as no-take reserves (the Coral Triangle includes tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste). If that were to happen, what would the marine-based economies, livelihoods, and conservation work throughout the Coral Triangle look like?

The many competing users of the marine environment and its resources would need to convince governments of their need to have “space” allocated for their activities, be it fishing, fish farming, shipping, oil & gas exploration, recreation, and conservation, among others. Flipping the burden of proof and inverting resource governance would require people to demonstrate social benefits from extractive activities, above and beyond those already generated, with no impact (or positive impact) on ecosystem structure and function. Conservation would be the default, unless proven otherwise, and default property rights would sit with conservation rather than extraction.

While the benefits of MPAs related to preserving biodiversity, protecting commercially valuable species, replenishing depleted stocks, encouraging sustainable use, and providing a myriad of ecosystem services are well described, we struggle to understand why it seems so difficult for the Coral Triangle governments and countries worldwide to achieve the CBD commitments of having 10% of oceans and marine areas under protection or some form of management by 2020. Perhaps we need to flip the problem and create a new angle to an old debate.

A discussion panel – composed of representative from seafood industries, government representatives, conservation organizations – could reflect on things like:

Would advocates of intensified resource use run campaigns to convince the public and specific decision makers of the need for, and value of, being attributed a portion of the ocean for local and global societies?

Would they need to keep reminding governments of those existing laws and policies that are in support of economic development and responsible use of the oceans’ natural resources at international and national conventions and platforms?

Would multi-lateral economic and trade-related agencies play the role that conservation NGOs and multi-national conservation agencies such as IUCN currently have, and try to make their case at Rio in a small side session for a debate on use of the oceans?

Would ocean users be required to contribute to the “conservation first” approach? Would they need to go through long and inclusive participatory planning and negotiation processes to get access to a certain area for specific use?

Would they need to compensate for the lost conservation area through a variety of mechanisms, such as payment for management of an area of comparative conservation and environmental value of the ecological services provided by that area?

Would communities that live along coastlines and on islands be doing anything differently from what they do today? Would the specific designation of use areas provide additional livelihood and food security benefits that can be measured and evidenced as attribution compared to the provision of food and livelihoods from activities in the multiple-use zones of the Coral Triangle MPA?

Would governments monitor to ensure that users’ regulated activities are allowed, and that they are able to harvest fish in designated areas or can users actually be trusted to manage and ensure their use-rights themselves?

Would financial institutions consider the benefit of environmental restoration (growth) firstly and above the financial profitability of proposals for investment in infrastructure and economic development?

Even though this “30% no-take zone scenario” looks like science-fiction for now (as less than 2% of the oceans are currently protected and we are not even talking about no-take zones), the impact of such measures would go well beyond conservation benefits. Designating the entire Coral Triangle or indeed all our oceans as a well-managed MPA, with 30% no-take reserves and the rest in effectively implemented sustainable use areas would probably provide the global, regional, and local societies with the same (if not more) protein livelihoods and services as today. And if the entire world’s ocean realm was a well-managed MPA, we would not lose bit-by-bit those goods and services every year.

The outcome of such debate or “participatory play” could help identify and generate innovative mechanisms to motivate government, private sector, and civil society to take action for a more sustainable use of the oceans. Do you want to start this debate with me or go back to sleep?

worried mother, passionate marine conservationist, relaxed diver
  • Elsabe

    I agree that more MPA’s, no take zones are needed around the the world, especially the SA coast line. Fish are being caught even if they are listed orange/red on SASSI list. The government will not help protecting unlawfull entering into MPA’s. Neither will the commercial fishermen. They’ll just continuing doing as they do currently or start poaching. Special people needs to be appointed just to protect those certain areas. Sad but true. Untill there is no more fish to catch 🙁

  • Urs

    Thanks Lida

    A brilliant approach! And I agree with you that in order to make the “so-much-needed-change” we have to widen our view and look at current issues from a different angle, do we want to find real solutions and not only proforma cases.
    What happens and has happened to our oceans for the last 60 years or so is just one huge example of a “tragedy of the commons” and every economy student could explain after the first few lessons, that where no property rights are assigned, a tragedy is programmed. Therefore one can only wonder, why governments don’t get their heads around to finally taking accordant measures….maybe it’s that they representatives are those, who make the profit out of the tragedy!

    Yes, the world needs more (M)PAs, and more alternative thinking, because currently we are just repainting a damaged world again and again, without noticing that the paint can’t help fixing the cracks underneath……

  • Kealoha Pisciotta

    Aloha Lida, I am interested in the many critical quesitons you pose in your article. I believe there are laws in place (at least here in Hawai`i and in California –like the mono lake case where the court shut down the water to LA, or in Waiahole water case(s) in Hawai`i) that support your positions. And while they are not International per se they coudl inspire us to adopt them locally, regionally and even internationally. They fall under what is known as the Public Trust Doctrine-an ancient body of law (Roman Law) that has made its way into modern case law that protects what is commonly referred to as the Commons. The old argument under the Tragedy of the Commons suggests that because the Commons are open and free they will be exploited. We disagree and believe the law supports greater protections against exploitation of the seas under what is called the Public Trust Doctrine (PTD) which is a legal basis for the protection of the commons (i.e. the oceans or those things that cannot be owned or exclusively controlled by any one person or any one entity (like the Corporate fishing industry)). On the contrary the commons must be held for the benefit of the people not just special interests (like corporate fishers). The PTD inverts and as you say “shifts the burden of proof” from the people for whom the commons are to be protected for to the takers (exploiters) to prove why they want to take from the rest of us–or why they want to have exclusivity over what belongs to all and cannot be owned,such as the Sea. Under the PTD no one person or entity can excessively take from the commons (or take away the right of others to enjoy the commons), and if they wish to they must justify it to the owners of the Commons–the people. Instead we have regulatory capture and this must change. So it is my believe (I agree with you and I believe we have tools to create this) that we can us the PTD to turn the paradigm upside down-so that rather than us setting areas aside for protections the whole ocean is protected and only those who wish to take must come forward to justify the take.
    And under this system our regulatory agencies actually do their job to protect the animals and the people rather than running block for special interests. For the record I am not against MPAs but I believe they can promote a false since of hope and security, because even getting that level of protection is like pulling teeth. Furthermore we must take a stand against the fiction that conjures up the idea that profit is a right–it is NOT a right (especially when the profit involves the taking of the public’s rights to enjoy the common) . Thank you for sharing your ideas and feel free to contact us further via FB at Kai Palaoa or Kai Palaoa at PO Box 5864 Hilo, Hawai`i 96720

  • vanessa

    I am grateful for your expansive views and fear-free, provoking propositions which in fact reflect what I think is/should be our default way of thinking and acting as a species that lives in dependence on Earth’s resources. Many might still think the idea of full protection to the oceans as a starting point for debate to be an impractical daydream – but I am happy to keep daydreaming this reality into being with you and all the others who agree with it. Now let’s build critical mass!

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