Scientists and diplomats have identified scores of ecologically significant ocean areas that could benefit from international recognition. Many could eventually become new marine reserves in international waters—but the list, released late last week by a science advisory group to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), is far from producing action.
Still, the process is “a laudable start in employing a scientifically rigorous methodology to identify those special ocean areas that deserve greater protection,” says conservation scientist Richard Steiner, a consulting researcher in Anchorage, Alaska.
The advisory panel, which met last week in Montreal, Canada, tackled a wide range of issues, including identifying so-called ecologically or biologically significant marine areas, including those in waters not controlled by a specific nation. An estimated 1% of world oceans are already protected by various kinds of reserves, but there are few protected areas in waters beyond the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones off national coasts. The few existing international marine protection zones are either part of the Antarctic Treaty System, or are related to particular species such as marine mammals or to specific risks, like dumping.
In contrast, roughly one-quarter of the 207 sites on the advisory panel’s list are in open ocean areas (see here, click on UNEP/CBD/SBSTTA/18/L.9). In compiling it, scientists confronted a series of tricky questions during nine regional meetings. In the Arctic, for example, scientists used models to identify key “areas where coral or sponge concentrations are likely,” but they can’t be sure. Elsewhere, scientists grappled with how to protect species that have yet to be discovered. In the end, seven criteria—including vulnerability and biological productivity—guided scientists to target specific areas, like the "Shrimp and sardine route from Tabou to Assinie" off the Ivory Coast, and more general ones, like "The Marginal Ice Zone and the Seasonal Ice-Cover Over the Deep Arctic Ocean." The Arctic ice zone was controversial; as a result, it is one of 14 areas surrounded by brackets on the list, indicating disagreement among the delegates to the advisory body.
The next step is for the draft list to be debated and ratified by the 194 nations that are parties to the CBD, which helps establish global conservation policies. The nations will meet in October in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Actually establishing reserves in many of the areas, however, could take far longer, relying on national programs or other treaties. So could figuring out how to enforce any management measures, such as fishing bans. “It is a long and convoluted path,” says activist Richard Page, with Greenpeace International. Still, he says, “this week we came one more step on the way towards securing a global network of ocean sanctuaries.”
Meanwhile, marine conservationists are hoping that a related effort—a new proposed agreement to protect high seas biodiversity under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—will help further the cause. “[T]he high seas provide a range of ecosystem services, from driving weather systems and modulating the climate to the production of a high percentage of the oxygen we breathe,” states a letter signed by hundreds of marine scientists, including conservation icon Sylvia Earle, in support of the Law of the Sea approach. “[T]he high seas are full of life that needs protection.”
But Steiner is cautious, given the world’s poor track record of protecting species covered by existing treaties. “These acronym-rich bureaucratic processes,” he warns, “can be a way for governments to pretend to address a problem—in this case risks to ocean ecosystems—with the actual goal of avoiding political action to solve the problem.”