We need marine protected areas

(Real ones. Not just squares on a map.)

Marine creatures need a rest. They need places where they can reproduce and live their animal or vegetal life, safe from the disruption and threats caused by human industry. The creation of safe havens won’t entirely save marine wildlife, but it can buy us time while we work on reducing overfishing, underwater noise, and chemical, agricultural and plastics pollution across the rest of the planet. Marine protected areas are not only good for nature, they are good for us: if animals can reproduce comfortably, it helps fish stocks recuperate, which is good news for local fishers. A beautifully populated natural zone is also a fantastic asset for tourism.

There are different types of marine protected areas: some tolerate fishing and even some industrial activities; others are “no-take” zones; very few are complete “no-go” zones. If the different levels of protection were actually backed by enforced regulations, it could be okay. But in many cases, the regulations are missing entirely.

Many areas are designated as “protected” but have no laws in place to prevent destructive practices such as bottom trawling, sand dredging and offshore constructions, from happening. Since there are no regulations to ban them, these activities are legal. In many countries, laws don’t even exist to prevent harmful activities like oil and gas exploitation or deep-sea mining from happening in or very close to marine protected areas.

If we want to make sure marine protected areas are more than just squares on a map, we need governments to legislate against destructive activities in these areas. For the moment, governments can designate areas as “protected” because they recognize that they include remarkable or vulnerable marine ecosystems, and yet do nothing to actively protect them. In the EU, an estimated 10.8% of marine waters are supposed to be protected. But only a fraction of these have all impacting human activities banned and proper mechanisms in place to prevent illegal activities. We can do better than that.

We want governments to

  • Definitely ban destructive activities from marine protected areas, in particular bottom trawling.

  • Make sure that only low-impact activities are allowed in marine protected areas.

  • Prepare a long-term management plan for each area, in concertation with the people active there, with sufficient budget and staff capacity to enforce the regulations.