“The purpose is to be able to exploit the sea without losing biodiversity”


MPAs – a tool to protect the entire ocean

Politicians should talk less about how much of the sea is to be protected and more about a 100 percent sustainable use of the sea, says FAOs Fisheries Manager Manuel Barange. But according to researcher Sofia Wikström, marine protection is already a tool for achieving sustainable use of the entire sea - at least within the EU.

Text: Henrik Hamrén

– When it comes to oceans the political narrative, particularly in the west, is limited to two things: plastic pollution and marine protected areas, says Manuel Barange, and leans back heavily in the armchair. 

We sit in the lobby outside the congress hall in Gothia Towers in Gothenburg. Manuel Barange has just spoken to hundreds of fisheries scientists at the inauguration of the International Science Research Council's (ICES) annual science conference. 

Since he is head of fisheries and aquaculture at the UN agency FAO, much of his speech was about the role of fisheries in the global food supply. But he also expressed his strong concern that today's politicians are too unilaterally focused on marine protected areas and on how much of the sea is to be protected.

– The current goal is to protect ten percent of the ocean. And there is talk of increasing it to 30 percent. To me, that discussion defeats the point. The point is to have a 100 percent sustainable use of the ocean. That should be the target, Barange says.

Transferring the problem elsewhere

Manuel Baranga/FAOManuel Barange, head of fisheries and aquaculture at FAO. Photo: Alessandra Benedetti/FAO

He refers to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which states that at least ten percent of the world's coastal and marine surface will be protected by 2020. This goal is not yet being met by neither Sweden and the Baltic Sea countries nor the EU at large.

In addition, a new report from WWF shows that over half of the sea areas that are said to be protected within the EU lack concrete plans for how the protection should be implemented in practice.

– Say your country meets the target of ten percent of protection but does not manage the other 90 percent properly. Then you have simply just transferred effort of impact from one region to the other, Barange says. 

– And for the people living in the communities, and that rely on that ten percent that you’ve closed, their activity there has been turned into an illegal activity – because they will continue fishing.

Percentage is not relevant

Barange admits that the vision of “a 100 percent sustainable use” will also need to include conservation. But these conservation goals should not be set globally, he argues, but rather determined locally and by the conditions of each individual country.

– For example, if you have a huge coral reef that you want to protect. Well, you protect it! Weather it is 10, 20, or 30 percent is irrelevant. What matters is to move towards a 100 percent sustainable use, he says.

The highest extinction rate in 10 million years

Marine protected areas have become an increasingly politically prioritized tool in maritime management. Not least since the UN Scientific Panel on Biological Diversity, IPBES, earlier this year warned that the rate of extinction of the world's species is ten to a hundred times higher than the average over the last ten million years.

For the world's oceans, this means, among other things, that more than 40 percent of amphibians, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals and more than one-third of all marine mammals are threatened. 

Furthermore, one third of all marine fish stocks are harvested at unsustainable levels (2015) and nutrient supply to the seas has so far caused more than 245,000 square kilometers of "dead zones" (oxygen-free seabeds).

MPAs – one of several tools

Sofia Wikström
Sofia Wikström, marine ecologist and researcher. Photo: Baltic Sea Centre

In that perspective it may seem paltry to talk about whether there should be 10 or 30 percent protected areas.

Sofia Wikström, a researcher and marine ecologist at Stockholm University's Baltic Sea Centre, agrees that neither 10 nor 30 percent protection is sufficient if one did not manage the remaining marine areas well. But she does not recognise the view of area protection being put against sustainable use; at least not in Europe.

– Among managers and politicians, both in Sweden and at EU level, there is actually a lot of talk about sustainability. My view is that marine protection is generally regarded as one of several tools to achieve sustainable use of the entire sea, she says.

This may include, for example, protecting  spawning areas for fish, or creating refuges (protected areas) for species affected by our use of the sea.

– But the ultimate aim is that we can use the sea without losing biodiversity, says Wikström.

In practice, it is difficult to know exactly how many or how large these refugees need to be to protect the marine ecosystem. The question of 10 or 30 percent can therefore be seen as a kind of pragmatic ambition to begin with, according to Wikström.

– But in the biodiversity conservation goals, there is also a stated requirement that the network of protected areas should be functional for the species and habitats that are to be preserved. If species decline despite protection, the protection may need to be expanded, she says.

Conflict between protection and sustainable use

At the same time, there is also a need to discuss what we mean by sustainable use, says Sofia Wikström. According to a strict definition, our use should be within the planet's boundaries and not lead to loss of biodiversity, as such loss undermines future opportunities to exploit the ocean.

To get there, further work is needed to protect marine nature. And in that work protected areas can be one of several tools.

– But if the definition of sustainability is that ecological, social and economic sustainability must be weighed against each other in each case, then it is easier to see that there can be a conflict between protection and sustainable use, says Sofia Wikström.

Sofia Wikström

Sofia Wikström

Marine biologist