Creating the first generation of great marine parks

Joshua Reichert

Wallace Stegner, the celebrated writer and historian of the American West, once remarked that national parks were the ‘best idea we ever had’, a sentiment shared by countless others. For almost 140 years, since the establishment of the world’s first national park in Yellowstone in 1872, successive generations have been able to experience and enjoy some of the Earth’s most storied landscapes which, were it not for the decision to protect them, would long ago have succumbed to the axe, the pick and the plough. Today, more than 1,800 land-based parks exist in nearly 100 countries.

Setting aside spectacular areas on land from extractive activities such as logging, mining, farming, ranching, and the steady encroachment of cities and towns has long been accepted as an important way to protect some of the earth’s finest natural treasures.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the world’s oceans despite their critical importance to all life on the planet. Oceans cover approximately 72 per cent of the earth’s surface and are estimated to contain a significant percentage of all species, many of which are still unknown to science. They produce over half the oxygen in our atmosphere and absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide. They filter much of the pollution we generate, and play a vital role in the hydrological cycle which regulates the earth’s climate. Over 250 million people depend directly or indirectly on fishing for their livelihood and oceans are the primary source of protein for over 2.6 billion people worldwide. In short, the health of the world’s oceans is intrinsically linked to the health of the world’s human population.

Whereas land-based parks provide varying degrees of protection for almost 13 per cent of the earth’s terrestrial environment, only 0.5 per cent of the world’s oceans are fully protected, although they cover more than twice the amount of the earth’s surface. Moreover, they are rapidly being degraded by chemical and nutrient pollution; continued dumping of massive amounts of trash into the sea; destruction of coastal habitat and wetlands; global warming, which threatens to alter the basic chemistry and temperature of the world’s oceans in ways antithetical to marine life; and industrial fishing, which at present represents the most serious problem affecting ocean ecosystems.

Each year, fishing fleets remove nearly 80 million tonnes of fish and invertebrates from the world’s oceans. In addition, highly destructive fishing gear causes tremendous damage to ocean habitat and kills a vast array of marine life including seabirds, sea turtles, sharks and many undersize fish that are simply thrown back into the sea either dead or dying. The overall impact of these practices is staggering, and has grown dramatically worse over the past 50 years. Increasing numbers of boats, using ever more sophisticated technology, are chasing a dwindling number of fish that have nowhere to hide. The most recent figures compiled by the UN indicate that, conservatively, 85 per cent of fish stocks are fully exploited or worse – the highest levels ever recorded.

The Global Ocean Legacy programme

There is no single remedy for these problems, but one powerful tool we have is marine reserves – special places in which no fishing or other extractive activity is allowed. Reserves help protect marine habitat and the life that depends on it: they increase fish production, provide a laboratory for science and education, and help to promote tourism. In many respects, marine reserves are the quintessential example of resilience investing. In a warming world, the consequences of which will be widespread, they provide an additional buffer of protection that will help these places – and the life they contain – to adjust and survive.

Yet there are too few reserves in the world’s oceans. To help ameliorate this problem, the Pew Environment Group established a programme in 2006 called ‘Global Ocean Legacy’. Its goal is to promote the establishment of the world’s first generation of great marine parks, or no-take reserves, encompassing a minimum of 150,000 square kilometres each; containing unique habitats and ocean life that are now, or are likely to be, threatened by extractive activity; and where nothing can be removed from the water other than a photograph. By 2022, we hope to have successfully promoted the creation of 15 such parks.

Organized as a working collaboration between the Pew Environment Group and a growing number of partners,[1] Global Ocean Legacy provides a remarkable opportunity to leverage investments that produce exceptional results that could not be obtained by any one institution. The programme’s administrative structure and costs are remarkably lean. Partners do not pay overhead. Every dollar invested is directly applied to programme work and leveraged at a rate of 5:1. Each initiative is staffed by a small team of host country professionals who work exclusively on one project until completion, and are supported by a coalition of recognized and respected local scientific and conservation organizations.

The goal of these teams is to use the best available scientific, economic and public survey data to make the case why it is important to protect these unique places. Specific activities vary from site to site but often include constituent organizing; commissioning scientific and economic studies; and reaching out to different sectors, including the military, fishing and tourism industries, and other parts of the business community with vested interests in the marine environment.

Finally, the goal of the programme is very specific: 15 world-class parks by 2022, pursued in three five-year phases, with five sites per phase.

Achievements to date

Since its establishment, Global Ocean Legacy has played a critical role in more than doubling the area of the world’s oceans fully protected in no-take reserves. Among the initial five sites, three have been designated as reserves. Two of these, the British Indian Ocean Territory Marine Protected Area and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, are the world’s first and second largest reserves respectively. The other two are expected to be completed by mid-2012.

We have scoured the world to identify large areas of the ocean containing meaningful opportunities to create reserves. Regrettably, within national jurisdictions – which is where we focus our efforts because there are no protocols for creating reserves in international waters – not many remain. This realization lends urgency to our task. Given the projected expansion of the human footprint into some of the last untouched places in the sea, many of the areas that today are relatively undisturbed will not be that way 15 or 20 years from now.

Ultimately, only governments have the authority to create marine reserves within their territorial waters. Our job is to make the case why it is in their long-term interests, and those of their people, to do so.

We have an enormous opportunity to permanently protect some of the last great bastions of ocean wilderness left in the world, and in so doing to leave behind a great gift for future generations and a marvellous legacy for a small number of visionary philanthropists who, years from now, will be able to take pride in knowing that without their efforts, many of these places and the life they contain would not have endured.

1 Including the Oak Foundation, the Sandler Foundation, the Waitt Foundation, the Robertson Foundation and Lyda Hill, with support from the Tubney Charitable Trust.

Joshua Reichert is the managing director of the Pew Environment Group. Email

Phase 1 sites

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument 362,000 square kilometres of islands, atolls and coral reefs in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Designated in 2006; US)

Marianas Trench Marine National Monument 247,000 square kilometres encompassing the world’s deepest oceanic canyon and some of the oldest living organisms on earth. (Designated in 2009; US)

Chagos Marine Reserve 544,000 square kilometres that include almost half of the healthy reefs of the Indian Ocean and more than 220 species of coral and 1000 species of reef fish. (Designated in 2010; UK)

Coral Sea Among the least impacted tropical marine systems on earth, containing 49 islands and keys, over 20 reef systems, 52 species of deep-water sharks and rays, 28 species of whales and dolphins, and the world’s only-known spawning aggregation of black marlin. (Pending; Australia)

Kermadec Islands and Trench Contains the deepest trench in the southern hemisphere, more than 6 million breeding seabirds, and 35 species of whales and dolphins. (Pending; New Zealand)

Phase 2 sites (target completion 2017)

South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Located in the waters of Antarctica, these islands provide a temporary or full-time home to an estimated 100 million seabirds.

Bermuda The waters around this North Atlantic island are in the Sargasso Sea, often referred to as a golden rainforest for the colour of the floating Sargassum seaweed that serves as a nursery for a large number of unique ocean species. (UK)

The Pitcairn Islands Located in the south-east Pacific, and best known as the final destination of the HMS Bounty mutineers, these four remote islands, including Henderson Island, a World Heritage site, lie amid one of the most remote and undamaged marine areas in the world. (UK)

Easter Island Located in the south-east Pacific, Easter Island is the traditional home of the ‘Rapa Nui’, the westernmost settlement of Polynesians, and one of the most isolated islands on earth, with an ancient and largely unexplored marine area rich in endemic species. (Chile)

French Polynesia Site selection still in process.

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