Pollution of all kinds, overfishing, coastal development, climate change, acidification – It is urgent to take action to protect marine ecosystems, starting with the most vulnerable. An increasing number of Marine Protected Areas are being created, but how are they are managed? André Abreu, responsible for Environment and Climate at the Tara Expeditions Foundation answers our questions:
What’s happening today with the initiatives to protect marine areas?
Although an obvious necessity in our time of ecological crises, the establishment of Marine Protected Areas is far from an easy process. In order to protect an endangered species like the whale shark, to conserve biodiversity in a symbolic place like Hawaii or Easter Island, to protect endangered ecosystems such as coral reefs – each country has its own criteria, legal constraints and interests. Each objective requires a different procedure, and the means made available for managing these areas are very unequal.
We often talk about preservation or “sanctuary”. What does this mean?
Certain areas must be protected, such as the Antarctic, the Arctic, and also sensitive regions like coral reefs, which should probably have a status of total protection, prohibiting exploitation of all mineral resources, fisheries, etc. This would severely restrict human activity in these territories. Deserted areas – those without living communities – can be transformed into sanctuaries, but in more populated areas the process is extremely complex.
In recent decades various conservation initiatives have developed: “marine parks”, “Natura 2000 regions”, and more recently “Marine Educational Areas”. They are less restrictive, and sometimes not at all.
© François Bernard
What is the debate today within groups of experts and NGOs?
The debate is lively! Discussions focus heavily on the definition of zones, their status and effectiveness. Often the polemic requires that we decide between zones of “total sanctuary” or areas of “sustainable management”. The first is often inapplicable and the second covers multiple practices without real restrictions beyond the talk. How effective are Marine Protected Areas called “well managed marine areas”, where almost every kind of activity is allowed? How effective is the Calanques National Park, where huge quantities of red sludge are still being dumped nearby? Most often, unfortunately, reserves exist by decree, without funding, tools, or real logic for their implementation and management.
Is there a defined objective at the international level, by the UN for example?
The « Aichi Targets » proposed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2010 at the UN aim for the protection of 20% of the Ocean by 2020. Nations can propose different levels of protection adapted to each territory, with different activities, populations and cultures.
© Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Is this really effective?
That is the question! Among the areas requiring protection, the question remains as to what impact “restrictions” will have on human activities and populations. A lot of work must be done to determine the “level of protection” necessary for ecosystems, and the kind of “restriction of activities” appropriate for each region to be protected.
In what way can we improve the situation?
For the Tara Expeditions Foundation, the answer lies in the development of real scientific criteria concerning the vulnerability of ecosystems, their capacity for resilience, the time required for adaptation, the origin of threats, and the vitality of resources. In addition to all of this, we have to establish a democratic debate with the local population. In order to take into account the needs of the people, we must initiate a discussion in each region, and with the local population to determine which activities are indispensable, including artisanal fisheries, tourism, aquaculture, etc.
Faced with divergent interests, the situation is extremely complex. At present, dichotomies are arising (justified or not) that will need to be clarified on the basis of not-yet-exploited scientific expertise, even though the UN has provided the involved countries with specific guidelines for identifying areas for protection (EBSAs = Ecologically and biologically significant marine areas).
Right now Tara is sailing in the Pacific where many of these questions are being asked everyday. Taking into account the vision of people living in the Pacific, the interests of cities, objectives of NGOs and economic pressures, it is essential to promote a peaceful debate with all stakeholders. We must work to improve the definition and management of Marine Protected Areas. Criteria for determining or rejecting these areas must not be dictated by various opportunistic motivations, but should be based on scientific evidence and respect for local populations. This takes longer, and is certainly more difficult, but is also more sustainable.