Protecting the World’s Oceans

By Abby Schultz 
March 22, 2021 8:00 am ET

In 2015, Palau, a nation of more than 300 coral and volcanic islands in the western Pacific Ocean, expanded on decades of marine conservation to create a 193,000-square-mile protected area encompassing an extraordinary 80% of its ocean waters.

Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary is a marine protected area (MPA), where commercial fishing and mining are banned. These “no-take” protected waters are designed to create a safe environment for critically endangered hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles, 1,300 species of fish, 700 species of coral, manta rays, whales, tunas, and seabirds, according to the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions (COS). 

The goal of protecting this rich ecosystem, located less than a thousand miles from the Philippines, and home to fewer than 20,000 people, is to draw tourists to its immaculate waters and coral reefs—it’s a clear economic incentive to protect nature. In the fiscal five years leading up to 2018, tourism generated up to 27% of Palau’s economy, or about US$77 million, and employed about 10% of its workers, a 2019 report by COS and the Palau International Coral Reef Center states. 

That the tiny nation of Palau stepped up to create one of the biggest MPAs in the world is consistent with an ancestral history of ensuring its waters and the creatures that depend on them remain healthy. “Marine conservation has been a tradition for Palau,” says Noah Idechong, the former speaker of the house of delegates of Palau, who shepherded the Palau Shark Sanctuary into place in 2009.  

But Palau’s experience with conserving one of the world’s most important marine ecosystems speaks to struggles faced by many communities with economies dependent on ocean waters that are being depleted by overfishing and capture methods that harm other species. The global need to conserve and protect the biodiversity of sea life, and to restore the size and abundance of commercial fish, such as tuna, is a balancing act of interests that includes the economic livelihoods of coastal communities dependent on surrounding waters for revenue from fishing and tourism. 

This balance is more tenuous today because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before Covid-19, countries such as Palau could expect their protected waters to draw international tourists and diving enthusiasts. During the pandemic, Palau shut down commercial flights into and out of the country. 

There’s “zero tourism” now in Palau, says Idechong, now a senior advisor to The Nature Conservancy’s Indo-Pacific Tuna Program. “We’re suffering.”

A Push for More Protected Areas 

MPAs have gained traction among academics and many conservation groups around the globe as an effective means of preserving and protecting ocean ecosystems, and the species whose survival depends on them. 

“The best conservation tool we have is marine protected areas,” says Sarah Hameed, a senior scientist at the Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute. “You can put some fish in a tank, but you can’t get all the biodiversity in a tank—you have to preserve whole ecosystems.”

But for protected areas to be effective, bans on commercial fishing and mining need to be managed and enforced. Only 7% of the world’s ocean waters are protected at all, and an even tinier sliver—less than 3%—carry the full enforcement and monitoring protections needed to ensure a healthy ocean.

“Most MPAs in the world right now, sadly, are not high quality,” Hameed says. 

The first step for many interested in ocean health is to get some protections in place for biologically rich areas of the ocean. That’s why the institute is involved in a global initiative to conserve 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

The group also is leading a 3-year-old effort to shine a light on the best MPAs, those that are “in the right places, with the right rules and the right management to safeguard wildlife,” by designating them as Blue Parks, says Hameed, director of the program. 

Blue-footed boobies perching on a rock in the Galápagos. Getty Images/EyeEm Premium

Harmful Fishing Practices, Pollution, and Climate Change

“Protecting 30% of the ocean—the right 30%—is a minimum to prevent a catastrophe,” says Enric Sala, founder of the Pristine Seas project at National Geographic. 

The threat to the oceans comes from three main sources: harmful fishing practices, pollution, and climate change, Sala says.

Currently about 82% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, meaning they are taken out of the water faster than they can reproduce. Protecting an area fully from commercial fishing can increase the biomass (the number and size of fish) within it by 600% within a decade, he says. 

Also, methods of industrial fishing, if not practiced correctly, can ensnare tons of other sea creatures. For every pound of shrimp that’s caught through bottom trawling—a method of dragging large, weighted nets across the sea floor—10 pounds of other sea animals are discarded, Sala says. 

Pollution can be visible—like the marine trash swept up into so-called garbage patches in the ocean—and invisible, such as mercury spewed from coal-fired power plants, which then accumulates up the food chain. 

The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere from human-induced climate change also is making the ocean warmer and more acidic, which destroys coral reefs and causes fish to move from warmer to colder waters, Sala says.

“The science is clear,” Sala says. “If we want to prevent the extinction of a million species and the collapse of our life-support system, and if we want to achieve goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, we need half of the planet [land and sea] in a natural state. We can start with the milestone of at least 30% by 2030.”

The Value of Protected Areas

Marine scientists and conservationists are seeking to protect biologically and ecologically rich ocean areas because, when done right, it works—the waters become healthier. 

In the eastern part of the northern Channel Islands, a short hop west of the Southern California coast in the Pacific Ocean, an underwater swimmer would “almost know when you’ve swum over the boundary into an MPA based on how many lobsters you see,” says Jenn Caselle, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Lobster is “a valuable commodity for local fishermen, but the MPAs really do preserve them,” Caselle says.

The Channel Islands include a national park, a national marine sanctuary, and a network of five MPAs overseen by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife in the area. It took 11 years to get the California network of MPAs in place, with all stakeholders affected—community members, the tourist industry, government, and fishermen—providing input. This process is critical for ensuring MPAs work, Caselle says.

“We need more marine protection, we do,” she says. “But we also need to take care of the people who rely on the ocean for food and for resources.”

Tensions in the Galápagos

The waters surrounding Ecuador’s Galápagos—the islands made famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution—were designated as the Galápagos Marine Reserve, an MPA, in 1998. The law that created the reserve also limited migration to the islands even for mainland Ecuadorians, a far-sighted move that limited the entry of invasive species to fragile island ecosystems.

The 51,000-square-mile Galápagos MPA is in many ways a success story. Although tensions between conservationists and fishermen constantly exist, provisions in the original law that had allowed for local fishermen and community members to have their say on issues affecting the waters have generally allowed protections to prevail. 

“Stop for a minute and think about what would the Galápagos look like now without the special law of the marine reserve,” Alex Hearn, a professor of marine science at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, recalls telling the Galápagos Governing Council in December, as he presented scientific research backing a proposal to protect migratory species. It would be like “Hawaii, with high-rise blocks and invasive species, or Guam where the tree snake wiped out the birds,” he says.

This latest proposal to boost protections of the waters surrounding the Galápagos has gained traction amid more incidences of industrial fishing fleets encroaching close to the reserve in their quest to catch tuna, sharks, and squid. The plan—which is now in the public domain for input—would include a large no-take zone, two responsible fishing areas, and an El Niño buffer zone to ensure the expanded protected area adapts to warming waters. 

Even with protections in place, however, economic pressures can be fierce—particularly in a tourism-dependent economy during a pandemic. Early in December, the director of Galápagos National Park allowed a longline fishing experiment to take place in the reserve. Longlining is a method that ensnares threatened sea life, including turtles, sea birds, fur seals, and manta rays, along with the targeted catch.

“There’s a lot of shenanigans going on under the guise of Covid,” Hearn says. 

The Future of Ecotourism

Creating the Palau National Marine Sanctuary led to the departure of major fishing fleets in the region, which has affected the country’s food supply and economy.

Conservationists and the government are working to balance these pressures by developing a domestic fishing zone in 20% of the country’s ocean waters not designated as a no-take zone, says Keobel Sakuma, Palau program director for the Nature Conservancy’s Indo-Pacific Tuna Program. 

Mark Zimring, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Indo-Pacific Tuna team, doesn’t believe the ecotourism model is broken. But the current crisis raises issues for the global community “around how to increase resilience of the ecotourism model itself,” Zimring says. 

The organization is among those exploring innovative ways of creating this resilience, including financial products as well as government aid. 

“These are many small island developing states that can’t afford for us to get it wrong,” Zimring says. “We need to be more serious than in the past about showing up as real partners.” 

Read the original coverage from Barron’s at


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