Behind the World’s First Generation of Large-Scale Marine Reserves

  • December 05, 2016
  • by John Briley

After the Fact Podcast Episode 6: Our Blue Planet–Protecting the Ocean

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Where Are the World’s Largest Marine Reserves?

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Marine reserves

The Coral Sea marine reserve created by the Australian government hosts more than 400 species of fish—70 of them found nowhere else. (© Daniela Dirscherl/Getty Images)

“Our duty,” said President George W. Bush, “is to use the land and seas wisely, or sometimes not use them at all.” He was speaking, on June 15, 2006, at a ceremony establishing the largest ocean reserve in the world, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. In the ensuing decade, the monument—renamed Papahānaumokuākea in 2007—would be eclipsed in size eight times by other large, permanently protected marine areas around the globe.

But it regained its mantle Aug. 26, when President Barack Obama expanded the monument to cover an area nearly four times the size of California, making it the largest permanently protected area in the world. “If we’re going to leave our children oceans like the ones that were left to us, we’re going to have to act boldly,” President Obama said. “We cannot truly protect our planet without protecting our ocean.”

This decade-long bipartisan appreciation for the ocean has helped fuel momentum around the world to create great parks in the sea. Papahānaumokuākea is one of a growing number of large, highly protected marine reserves that could very well determine the future health of the ocean—and the planet itself.

With the oceans providing sustenance for billions of people and myriad wildlife, preserving these waters has never been more essential. In 2006, The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners launched the Global Ocean Legacy project to promote the world’s first generation of permanently protected marine reserves. These reserves are modeled on the same notion that led to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in the United States in 1872, which in turn has inspired more than 100 countries to create over 1,800 land-based parks. “It would be a tall order if you tried to create Yellowstone today, but look at what it has meant to the world,” says Pew’s Matt Rand, who directs Global Ocean Legacy. “And that’s what we are doing for the oceans.”

In the past half-century, some species of sharks and other large predatory fish have declined by 90 percent or more. Experts estimate that up to 1 out of every 5 fish taken from the ocean is caught outside the law. And the United Nations estimates that 88 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited.

In establishing large marine reserves, governments typically ban fishing, seabed mining, and drilling. This leaves expansive areas of undisturbed waters where marine life can feed, breed, and thrive, with the beneficial effects spreading far outside the protected areas to the rest of the ocean.

Starting with the 2006 Hawaii designation, Global Ocean Legacy has worked with governments and local residents to protect more than 2.4 million square miles of ocean, an area roughly equivalent to two-thirds of the land area of the continental United States.

Marine reserves

The Parks

Location: 25.7277° N, 170.4549° W
Government: United States
Area: 140,000 sq mi / 363,000 sq km
Location: 17.7500° N, 142.5000° E
Government: United States
Area: 79,000 sq mi / 206,000 sq km
Location: 6.0000° S, 72.0000° E
Government: United Kingdom
Area: 247,000 sq mi / 640,000 sq km
Coral Sea
Location: 19.3920° S, 155.8561° E
Government: Australia
Area: 382,000 sq mi / 990,000 sq km
Pacific Remote Islands
Location: 15.6178° N, 171.5158° W
Government: United States
Area: 493,000 sq mi / 1,278,000 sq km
Location: 24.3768° S, 128.3242° W
Government: United Kingdom
Area: 322,000 sq mi / 834,000 sq km
Location: 29.2667° S, 177.9167° W
Government: New Zealand
Area: 239,000 sq mi / 620,000 sq km
Easter Island
Location: 27.1130° S, 109.3496° W
Government: Chile
Area: 244,000 sq mi /631,000 sq km
Location: 7.5150° N, 134.5825° E
Government: Palau
Area: 193,000 sq mi / 500,000 sq km

Those who live near the reserves often have the deepest appreciation for the protections because their local culture and history are intertwined with the sea. “I know extinction, and I know what it looks like, feels like, and smells like,” says Nainoa Thompson, who grew up on Oahu and is now renowned as a master of the ancient Polynesian art of open-ocean navigation. “When we see Papahānaumokuākea, we go back to a place that—because it is protected—we can see what the ocean is supposed to look like, what it’s supposed to feel like.”

Collectively, these reserves harbor thousands of plant and animal species. The sanctuaries include the deepest chasm in the ocean, the Marianas Trench, which plunges to 36,069 feet below sea level; 142 species found nowhere else on Earth but in waters around Easter Island; and 5,000-year-old coral in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The reserves also include millions of square miles of ordinary ocean habitat that, Rand says, need protection just as much as more spectacular marine features do.

“All of the world’s ecosystems are interconnected, and none is more important than the others,” he says. “By protecting a water column 150 miles from shore, we are giving a hand to coral polyps that could migrate to expand a reef. A mudflat provides habitat for species that are prey to larger creatures, and that’s a critical role in the ocean food web.” The Global Ocean Legacy sites reflect this diversity because, as Rand says, “in nature, nothing happens in isolation.”

In addition to providing benefits far beyond their boundaries as fish and mammals travel to neighboring waters, large marine reserves serve as buffers against the effects of ocean warming. Reserves don’t stop that warming or ocean acidification but do offer areas that are more resilient—because the ecosystem is intact and in a natural balance free of fishing, seabed drilling, and other threats—where plants and animals are better situated to weather the effects of global climate change.

Marine reserves

The Chilean government created a marine reserve in the waters surrounding Easter Island, which is home to the iconic, centuries-old statues called moai. (© Ralf Hettler / iStockphoto)

The nine refuges promoted by Global Ocean Legacy have been announced by the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Chile, New Zealand, Palau, and Australia. The project has focused on waters controlled by stable governments, with political leaders who are interested in conservation, to help ensure that the reserves last and are monitored and protected. Once a location is identified, project staff members work with scientists to identify particularly sensitive habitats or waters with remarkable features, which often helps generate public and political support for protecting such places.

Then what is often the most difficult work begins: identifying and seeking common ground with the groups that have an interest in the area considered for protection. These can range from islanders and artisanal fishermen to well-funded lobbying groups and multinational companies. With some stakeholders, it is easy to reach agreement, because a reserve can, for example, safeguard local fishing grounds from incursions by massive foreign-flagged trawlers. With others, the effort to reach consensus can stretch on for years.

To win broad support for the Pitcairn Islands reserve, for instance, Global Ocean Legacy representatives traveled, numerous times, by plane and boat for days to reach the isolated area, where they met with local leaders. They also arranged meetings in London between those representatives and U.K. politicians, sessions that helped reassure British leaders of the islanders’ desire to protect their waters.

Marine reserves

The beaches and waters of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean are some of the cleanest places on Earth and are now protected as a marine reserve. (© Getty Images)

To gain momentum for the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, the project worked with descendants of the Chamorro and Carolinian people who settled the region as long ago as 4,000 B.C. They were eager for the opportunity because it gave impetus, says Ignacio Cabrera, chairman of the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument, for the “revival, rejuvenation, and restoration, not just of the terrestrial and marine environment, but also of the Chamorro identity.”

For all the scientific research and hard work that must be done, serendipity can play a role, too. During an aftershock that followed a major earthquake in Chile in 2015, participants in an international ocean conference sheltered in a government building in Santiago. They included a Pew staffer who introduced William Aila, a Hawaiian kapuna, or elder with strong ties to the islands’ fishing communities, to Christy Goldfuss, managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet had just announced that her country would establish marine reserves totaling over 400,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers), including a Global Ocean Legacy site around Easter Island. Goldfuss and Aila agreed to work together, with Hawaiian stakeholders and Pew personnel, to create an even bigger sanctuary in U.S. waters. The result was this year’s Papahānaumokuākea expansion.

Marine reserve

Former first lady Laura Bush, a longtime advocate for protecting the world's oceans, was a featured speaker at a Washington dinner hosted by Pew to honor the Global Ocean Legacy partners for a decade of conservation success. (© Lee Gillenwater/The Pew Charitable Trusts)

From its start 10 years ago, Global Ocean Legacy’s effectiveness has depended upon the strong partnerships that have supported and nurtured the project’s efforts. The partners knew that they would have greater leverage and opportunity to accomplish their goals by combining resources and sharing expertise. Through regular meetings, site visits, and one-on-one interactions with the project staff, the partners helped provide broad oversight and weighed in on the strategic direction of the project.

The Papahānaumokuākea expansion has now brought the Global Ocean Legacy project full circle—its first location expanded into the world’s largest permanently protected park in the sea, a bipartisan achievement as a Democratic president built upon the legacy of a Republican president. In celebration of a decade of collaboration, Pew hosted a dinner in Washington in September to honor the Global Ocean Legacy partners that included remarks from two leading champions of the ocean, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and former first lady Laura Bush, as well as a short documentary film narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Ten years on, Global Ocean Legacy can look back on a body of work that has helped protect more than 3 percent of the world’s ocean. But experts at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and other scientists say it is essential to safeguard 10 times that area to keep the ocean healthy and productive into the future—so there is much more to do.

In the new year, Pew is joining with the Bertarelli Foundation to launch the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project, a $30 million partnership that will seek to create six more great parks in the sea by 2022. The Bertarelli Foundation has long been concerned with the ecological threats facing the ocean. It lent significant support to a Global Ocean Legacy campaign to secure creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve, and Dona Bertarelli, who co-chairs the foundation with her brother Ernesto, played an active role in winning designation of the reserve near Easter Island.

“This is an important and exciting new chapter in Pew’s work to protect the ocean. The Bertarelli Foundation is a well-established champion for the sea, and we’re energized about the future,” says Rand. “We have so much more to accomplish.”

Marine reserves

This species of anemonefish is found only in the Chagos Archipelago. (© iStockphoto)