2015: The year of marine reserves

Photos by Enric Sala/National Geographic

Fighting pollution – or better said, fighting the causes of pollution – is a long, demanding and quite often thankless endeavor. The economic benefits of ignoring any harm done to our environment often overshadow the results of this damage: the destruction of our own living space. Nevertheless, a number of people all over the globe relentlessly work on making our ocean’s cleaner. One of the greatest achievements was the amount of sea territory that was put under protection in 2015. In fact, last year more areas have been declared protected reservoirs than ever before! Each of these areas are home to unique and sensitive ecosystems.

Fisheries Economics & Policy: Marine Protected Areas explained by Conservation Strategy Fund


Chile for example created the largest Marine Reserve in the Americas around the Desventuradas Islands, which is now a no-fishing zone and can only be entered under special circumstance. The newly protected area is roughly the size of Italy, or 297 518 square kilometers. Now called the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park encloses the islands San Ambrosio and the San Felix islands, which are together known as the Islas de los Desventurados, or more commonly just Desventuradas (which roughly translates to “Unfortunate Island/Islanders”). Few have ever never heard of them, as they are quite isolated and have no inhabitants except a small Chilean Navy detachment. Their isolation is exactly what makes these islands so unique, similar to the Galapagos Islands. On both islands, a lot of the life that developed there is unique in this world. So many of the species found on and around these islands can’t be found outside these specific habitats – these species are called endemic species. Roughly 72% of live found on the Desventuradas Islands is in fact endemic. Hence fishing will only be allowed outside the protected areas. Up until now there was only moderate fishing practiced in the area, mainly targeting swordfish. By declaring this area a marine reserve Chile hopes to keep intact a unique eco system. They wanted to act before fishing can expand and pose and active threat.

PRISTINE SEAS Desventuradas PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic Pristine Seas. Photo credit and caption required. Copying, distribution, archiving, sublicensing, sale, or resale of the image is prohibited. Photos by Enric Sala/National Geographic
Photo by Enric Sala/National Geographic for National Geographic Pristine Seas

Another large marine reserve called the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is being created on the other side of the globe, around New Zealand. It is one of the world’s biggest, being 620,000 square kilometres big – twice the size of New Zealand’s land mass. 1000 kilometres north-east off the mainland coast, in the South-Pacific Ocean, you can find an uninhabited cluster of small islands, which feature more biodiversity than any other place in New Zealand. New Zealand tries to protect them from the potential impact of fishing and deep sea mining.

New Zealand’s 44th marine reserve is important not only because of it’s size, but because it provides a temporary home to 35 species of dolphins and whales, including the blue whale, every year. So far they have recorded 250 species of corals and so called bryozoans, tiny almost coral-like creatures more commonly known as moss animals. 3 out of 7 turtle species can be found in the waters there as well. The area also harbors geographical marvels like the second deepest ocean trench – it reaches deeper than the Mount Everest stands tall – and the world’s longest chain of submerged volcanoes. The latter is one of the reasons why Europeans never properly settled there, many of them are still relatively active.

Kermadec deep water species_GNS Science
Photo by Macom Clark NIWA

While this is quite impressive, it is not the biggest reserve whose creation was announced in 2015. The world’s largest marine reserve is going to be 830,000 square kilometers big, belongs to Great Britain, and is located around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. You might even know the island from the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty, but it is known among scientists and explorers as one of the most pristine places on earth. This means it is one of the least polluted ocean environments you can find, not common as many islands, many are often littered with trash brought on by currents or are overfishing. To keep the Pitcairns Islands in their pristine state, the British government announced in their 2015 budget in point 2.259 their intention to declare the area at Pitcairn a Marine Protected Area (MPA). This would protect the abundance of sharks, who are vital to the ecosystem, in Pitcairn’s coral reefs and the further out deep-sea ecosystem, who are rarely explored. Seabed-mining and fishing would hence be illegal in this area. The protected area overall would be bigger than Britain – in fact, more than three times bigger, making it effectively the biggest MPA ever created.

Pit..who..? Pitcairn Islands – a stunning reef kingdom

These are only three examples out of many, but by now you have probably noted some similarities. They are all well-preserved and nearly untouched eco-systems, which is why they need protection all the more. But it seems that many states are much more willing to protect areas where no one – no fisheries or companies – will yet object. In itself this is not a problem, these areas still need protection and might become under threat in the future. It will however become a problem if governments stop there. As illustrated by these examples, many protected areas are obviously very large, but all added together all MPAs only make up 1% of our world’s oceans. This is far away from UNESCO’s goal of having 10% protected by 2020 according to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets

It also remains to be seen how actively these area’s can be protected once they are actively under threat. The British Budget 2015 does note that they have to first reach an “agreement with NGOs on satellite monitoring and with authorities in relevant ports to prevent landing of illegal catch, as well as on identifying a practical naval method of enforcing the MPA at a cost that can be accommodated within existing departmental expenditure limits”. In short, they need to find an affordable way to actually protect these areas. This will be tricky as it is, but will become more difficult if interest in illegal fishing in these areas rise. Then we will see how invested our governments are in preventing harm done to these areas. 



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