Are Marine Protected Areas in the Right Places to Protect People, or Just Nature?

Healthy Hard Coral Reef with Anthias and Coral Grouper at Killibob’s Knob dive site in Kimbe Bay of Papua New Guinea. Photo credit: © Jeff Yonover

Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist, The Nature Conservancy

I’m at the World Parks Congress, a-once-a-decade global meeting of scientists, protected area managers and other experts to focus on the state and future of national parks and nature reserves. There’s so much to talk about here—new science and technologies to monitor parks, ways to engage local communities, and government commitments to add new protected areas to a growing global list.

But I’m focused on a different question: I want to know whether national parks and nature reserves are doing a good enough job of protecting nature’s services to people, including providing the natural barriers to storms, providing fish production, and supporting tourism and recreation industries that support livelihoods and coastal economies?

In advance of the Congress, colleagues and I conducted new research looking at coral reefs and mangrove forests, iconic habitats with immense importance for both people and nature. They support local communities and cultures through jobs, recreational opportunities, food, income, storm protection, building materials, clear clean water, climate regulation and other benefits.

Along with colleagues at Cambridge University, World Resources Institute, UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and BirdLife International, we are releasing some preliminary findings to coincide with the Congress.

In our discussion paper we start with five global maps focused on tourism, coastal protection and fisheries from coral reefs; and carbon stocks and fisheries from mangrove forests. We then apply a simple overlay of maps asking how many of these services are contained in the world’s protected areas.

The answers are, not surprisingly, mixed.

Mangrove roots and fish at Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Coastal mangrove forests serve as a breeding gound for sea life and a natural barrier against storms and sea level rise erosion. PHOTO CREDIT: © Marjo Aho

Mangrove forests are “fish factories” that support fishing jobs and food security for many coastal communities. Globally, 36 percent of mangroves are in protected areas, but a much lower percentage of their fisheries values fall in these sites. Indonesia, for example has 20 percent of its mangroves in protected areas, but only 10 percent of its fisheries production value is protected. These numbers are similar for nearby countries, and East and Southeast Asia overall.

By contrast, tourism values the world over, are generally well protected. In Australia, with its iconic Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, tourism is a major industry. While 83 percent of all Australia’s coral reefs are in protected areas, an estimated 91 percent of the tourism income from coral reefs is derived from sites in protected areas.

Governments and communities seem to understand the value of tourism, and the economic and social benefits of safeguarding such value. At a World Parks Congress reception celebrating recent successes of the Coral Triangle Initiative with The Nature Conservancy and partners, Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt said, “If the reef pays, the reef stays”.

In reality ecosystems “pay” in many ways, but the challenge for us has been in giving those values a voice that can influence governments. Going forward, we need to better articulate the additional services provided by coastal and marine habitats, such as fish production and coastal protection. The global conservation community has talked a lot about these values, but ours is one of the first global studies to try and quantify their protection and it is part of our wider initiative we call mapping ocean wealth.

The need is clear and urgent. We can’t wait ten years until the next World Parks Congress. We need to ensure that protected areas are indeed protecting the services people need.

A summary of The Nature Conservancy’s work at World Parks Congress is available here.

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