Falling Behind in Ocean Protection

It’s National Oceans Month and on June 8 we will celebrate World Oceans Day, so it’s a good time to check in on how close we’re getting to the international goal of fully protecting 10% of the world’s ocean. Unfortunately it looks like we have a long way to go, especially right here in North America.

This week the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Marine Conservation Institute (MCI) released the first-ever joint assessment of progress on marine protected areas (MPAs) in North America.

There’s a lot of ocean surrounding continental North America – over 15 million km2 – with an incredible variety of ecosystems. From the ice-covered high Arctic Ocean, to the rich temperate waters of the Atlantic and Pacific and the tropical coral reefs in the Caribbean, these systems are valuable to the species they support, as well as the coastal communities that depend on them.

Wildlife is abundant in the Revillagigedo Archipelago off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Photo by Enric Sala/National Geographic.
Wildlife is abundant in the Revillagigedo Archipelago off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Photo by Enric Sala/National Geographic.

The largest whales on earth inhabit these waters, along with seabirds, turtles, and a diversity of fishes. But the health of this wildlife and the ecosystems they live in face many threats, including pollution, increasing temperatures, and overfishing. One way to mitigate these threats is to protect large areas where some, or all, extractive activities like fishing and oil drilling are excluded. As John Kerry, US Secretary of State and ocean lover, said at a recent meeting, “marine protected areas enable parts of the ocean to rejuvenate without human interference and they can serve as replenishment zones for fisheries and provide safe harbors for entire ecosystems.”

Sadly, according to the analysis, only 0.88% of the North American continental ocean is currently in MPAs and only 0.04% is fully protected. By comparison, MPA coverage within the ocean of all countries (not including the high seas) is about 5.27%. All three countries are seriously lagging behind the rest of the world, and Canada is even farther behind than the US or Mexico.

  • Canada is furthest behind with only 0.11% protected. Just 0.02% is in strict no-take reserves; the rest is still open to commercial fishing, shipping, and industrial activities. Fourteen proposed MPAs, if completed, would contribute another 2-3% to Canada’s MPA targets.
  • The USA has protected only 1.29%* of its continental ocean (this excludes Hawai’i and Pacific Island territories). Only 0.03% of the total USA coverage is in fully protected areas; the rest is still open to commercial fishing, extraction, and industrial activities.
  • Mexico has the highest coverage of the three countries with 43 MPAs protecting 1.62% of its ocean territory. There are currently five proposed MPAs under consideration that, if completed, would contribute another 19.8% to Mexico´s marine conservation efforts.

To make matters worse, recent scientific evidence indicates that the 10% target is not good enough; we need to get to at least 30% in order to restore the health of the ocean, and the MPAs need to be fully protected from industrial activities, including commercial fishing.

Narwhal off the coast of Canada's Baffin Island. Photo by Manu San Felix/National Geographic.
Narwhal off the coast of Canada’s Baffin Island. Photo by Manu San Felix/National Geographic.

National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project has conducted expeditions in both Mexico and Canada: the Revillagigedo Archipelago, known as the Galapagos of Mexico, and Lancaster Sound, near Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic. Each area is totally unique and protecting these areas would preserve important ecosystems and go a long way towards increasing the overall area under protection in these countries.

In light of the ongoing biodiversity crisis on Earth, scientists like the esteemed E.O. Wilson have recommended establishing interconnected networks of protected areas that leave 50% of the earth for nature to thrive for generations to come, and in doing so ensuring that our needs are met too. As National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Sylvia Earle, recently said, “Nature Needs Half applies to the waters of the world as well as the land, from the tops of mountains to the greatest depths of the sea. More than half of the world is ocean, the blue heart of the planet. You decide: How much of your heart do you need to stay alive?”


*Mexico and Canada don’t have any overseas territories or large island states like Hawaii, so these were excluded from US numbers to make the efforts across countries more comparable. Removing these areas from US marine protection coverage decreases protected areas from 16.32% to 1.29% and reveals that these large, remote areas make up the vast majority of the fully protected waters of the US.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Valerie Craig is Deputy to the Chief Scientist and Vice President of Operating Programs for National Geographic Society. She has strategic and operational oversight for the series of flagship programs and projects that are helping to achieve the Society's ambitious targets to deliver on the vision. She previously worked on ocean and freshwater issues for National Geographic's Impact Initiatives and Explorer Programs and oversaw the Lindblad-National Geographic Fund. Prior to joining NGS in May 2011, Valerie led TRAFFIC North America’s marine fisheries trade work, focusing on issues of legality and traceability in the seafood supply chain. Valerie earned a Master's of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and has a Bachelor’s in International Relations.