17. Marine Systems: Directing Conservation to the Sea

After many years of being largely overlooked, despite representing the vast majority of the planet's surface, the marine realm is now commanding attention. As terrestrial resources become increasingly scarce, the world looks to the seas for solutions. As terrestrial solutions to climate change mitigation become more challenging, policy makers ask how the oceans can help.

Among the most urgent of the many issues to address from the marine perspective are the impacts of increasing concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG) and overfishing. As we struggle to address these, two key tools that must be refined and adapted to oceans include governance of marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction and spatial planning, including marine protected areas (MPAs).


The oceans play a crucial role in regulating the world's climate, as well as providing food and income for billions of people across the globe. As the world's climate changes at an unprecedented rate due largely to anthropogenic GHG emissions, evidence of impacts on marine and coastal environments can no longer be ignored. Effects such as warming oceans, increasing water acidity, coral bleaching and rising sea levels are already being observed, and are having serious consequences on marine biodiversity and human societies. Improved understanding of climate change as well as how it interacts with and exacerbates many direct stresses, such as pollution and overfishing, and applying this knowledge to climate change mitigation and adaptation have thus become priorities for the international community.

Oceans will be both the victim of and potential solution to climate change impacts. Coral reefs are one of the world's most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change, and can be considered the “canaries in the climate change coalmine”. The 2008 report on the status of the world's coral reefs found that 19% of coral reefs had been lost with a consequent impact on 500 million people who depend on those reefs for their livelihoods (Wilkinson, 2008). But it isn't just reefs that are showing signs of the impacts of climate change. Mangroves and other coastal ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Higher sea temperatures and changes in acidity are affecting sea grasses which are used for traditional medicines, furnishings and roofing for houses, as well as providing essential habitats for numerous species, ranging from fish to dugongs.

Fisheries, and communities dependent on them, will also certainly feel the impacts of climate change. Alison et al. (2009) compared the vulnerability of 132 national economies to potential climate change impacts on their capture fisheries and determined that Malawi, Guinea, Senegal, Peru, Colombia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Yemen were the most vulnerable. This vulnerability was due to the combined effect of predicted warming, the relative importance of fisheries to national economies and diets, and limited societal capacity to adapt to potential impacts and opportunities.

In terms of watery solutions to the threats posed by climate change, one attracting much attention is that of geo-engineering the oceans. Phytoplankton play a key role in making the oceans the world's largest carbon dioxide sink, and proposals to “geo-engineer” the oceans and increase carbon absorption include stimulating algal blooms through the addition of iron and other nutrients to capture CO2 or by directly “injecting” CO2 into the geological structures under the seabed, a process known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) (Victor et al., 2009). Many heated discussions about the potential of the oceans to help with climate change mitigation cannot overcome the fact that we still know very little about oceanic biochemical processes and capacity to absorb CO2. While some studies show that ocean fertilization does stimulate plankton blooms it is unclear whether the transport of carbon to ocean sediment is effective, and impacts of such activities on the marine environment, plankton feeders such as whales, and the global climate remain unknown and unpredictable. Before considering the sale of carbon offsets for fertilization projects, further research is needed to assess the risks to our oceans, and large-scale fertilization activities require extreme caution. Similarly, the energy and cost-efficiency of CCS are not proven, and the potential implications of leaking are severe. Lastly, regulatory frameworks for neither ocean fertilization nor CCS are presently sufficient, and neither activity actually contributes to reducing manmade CO2 production.


The Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) State of World Fisheries report (FAO, 2008a) repeated the findings of its 2007 report but, while a stable situation over the past two years is a positive sign, the fact remains that the majority of the world's fisheries are already fully exploited and an additional 28% are overexploited. The report confirms that, in 2006, capture fisheries and aquaculture provided more food fish than ever before, with a growing proportion of those fish coming from aquaculture. Progress has been minimal on tackling the main factors resulting in overfishing; including managing by-catch, overcapitalization of the world's fishing fleets, control of illegal fishing, and mitigating the damage done through some fishing methods such as bottom trawling and cyanide fishing.

The FAO report does not mention some of the other serious findings coming to light in recent years. Some 26% of northeast Atlantic sharks and rays are threatened with extinction due to excessive fishing of these slow-growing species (Gibson, et al., 2008). Many seabirds, in particular albatrosses, are threatened by fishing activity as they can be part of the by-catch, although changes in the Hawaiian longline tuna fishery methods have resulted in a 67% decrease in seabird by-catch (Gilman et al., 2008). Another disturbing consequence of years of overfishing, especially for fish such as cod, is the finding that some fish populations, within a decade of a population crash due to overfishing, are now maturing at smaller sizes and earlier ages (Fudge and Rose, 2008). Modern fishing practices are resulting in evolutionary-scale change much more quickly than we might have imagined.

Political will to manage fisheries seems to be in short supply. One of the more disappointing events recently was the decision taken in November 2008 by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to endorse a quota for North Atlantic tuna that exceeds the recommended fishing level, proposed by its own scientific advisors, by almost 50% (IUCN, 2008c). The population of Bluefin Tuna has reached a critically low level, with all scientific advice agreeing on the need for a drastic reduction of fishing levels and a fishing closure during the spawning season to allow the stock to recover. Short-term economic and employment objectives are trumping the longer-term needs of ecosystems that underpin those objectives. It puts into question the role of regional fisheries management organizations and their ability to manage the resources on the high seas for a sustainable yield. On a smaller scale, however, some successes in fisheries management are being documented through the use of “catch shares” allocations to private fisherman, essentially a rights-based approach to resource management (Costello et al., 2008).

As if dealing with the impacts of short-sighted management decisions were not enough, new findings on climate change-induced shifts in the distribution and abundance of fish and invertebrates of commercial interest are now available and suggest that warmer-water species are shifting to higher latitudes and fish productivity is likely to decline in lower latitudes (i.e. most tropical and subtropical oceans, seas and lakes) (FAO, 2008b). While such ecological changes may have positive impacts in northern countries, they will obviously reduce fishing catch potential in tropical nations. In addition, tropical and polar oceans, as well as semi-enclosed seas, are predicted to be the most vulnerable to invasion by non-native species and shifts in species distribution. Due to their high dependence on fisheries for livelihoods and their limited capacity to adapt to climate change, poor coastal nations in the tropics, particularly in Africa, Asia and north-western South America, will be most affected by climate change impacts on fisheries. Management responses are needed, but these need to be carefully considered to balance trade-offs between fisheries management, biodiversity conservation and management of other human activities at sea for the long-term benefit of all.


The world's ocean needs to be considered as a whole and building bridges among the multiple stakeholders of the ocean and ocean resources – while representing a significant challenge – is also the only reasonable path forward. Uncoordinated, sectorally-focused governance and management regimes are not suited to appropriately address the multiple threats to the marine environment, or to assess cumulative impacts of activities or the impact of one activity on the other. And they are not suited to addressing the particularly thorny issue of governance beyond national jurisdiction – namely the high seas.

Nevertheless, marine issues are receiving significant political attention each year in the United Nations and present a tangible, near-term opportunity for conservation policy results. The United Nations General Assembly is addressing illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, bottom trawling, sea mount and other vulnerable marine ecosystem conservation, deep seabed genetic resources, and area-based management measures beyond national jurisdiction, while the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is dealing with marine conservation issues within national jurisdiction including MPAs and providing scientific and technical advice with respect to MPAs beyond national jurisdiction, including the identification of ecologically and biologically significant areas and the design of representative networks of MPAs.

The World trade Organization (WTO) is also negotiating reform of fisheries subsidies, mainly in response to concerns about unsustainable exploitation and environmental impacts (e.g. by-catch). These issues will remain politically and technically important for the foreseeable future. The London Convention (LC) has developed regulations with respect to sub-seabed sequestration of CO2 and is developing an assessment framework for scientific research activities involving ocean fertilization. The parties to the LC have called on States to refrain from ocean fertilization activities and have meanwhile issued a resolution stating that ocean fertilization activities other than “legitimate scientific research” are contrary to the aims of the London Convention or its Protocol, do not currently qualify for any exemptions, and should not be allowed.

To spur international discussion about reform, at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, 10 Principles for modern high seas governance were launched that reflect fundamental principles that nations have adopted in various treaties and declarations but have largely failed to implement on the nearly 50% of the planet that lies beyond any individual nation's jurisdiction (Box 17.1). These approaches are designed to stimulate progress by identifying common guidelines for action.


Although the global coverage for terrestrial protected areas is at ~12%, for the marine realm coverage is at less than 1% – a paltry measure considering that 71% of the planet is ocean. MPAs, when effectively designed, managed and enforced, can deliver many ecological and socio-economic benefits as well as build resilience of marine ecosystems in the face of increasing global pressures, especially climate change. Yet, at the current pace, the globally agreed goal of protecting 10% of the world's oceans by 2010 will not be met before 2060 – a time when many marine species, especially of high commercial value – might have already disappeared. The IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) will include a focus on improving tentative lists for marine World Heritage sites as well as developing approaches to improve the effectiveness of management for existing marine sites.

Box 17.1 Ten principles for high seas governance

  1. Conditional freedom of activity on the high seas

  2. Protection and preservation of the marine environment

  3. International cooperation

  4. Science-based approach to management

  5. Public availability of information

  6. Transparent and open decision-making processes

  7. Precautionary approach

  8. Ecosystem approaches

  9. Sustainable and equitable use

  10. Responsibility of States as stewards of the global marine environment

Source: http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/10_principles_for_high_seas_governance___final.pdf

Several global assessments have concluded that well-managed MPAs, grounded in in-depth knowledge of the local context, can be highly beneficial to local communities in addition to achieving conservation goals. Effective MPAs have been demonstrated to help improve productivity of neighbouring fisheries, increase and diversify economic opportunities for local people, support recognition of traditional fishing rights and other users' rights, and resolve local conflicts. MPA networks also serve an important role in increasing ecosystem resilience and can promote adaptation to climate change.

To be effective, networks of marine protected areas must be ecologically coherent and should be embedded in integrated ocean management frameworks that address the range of human activities and impacts both within and beyond the protected areas. An effective and representative MPA network requires current spatial and temporal information about the marine realm. The launch of the MPA layer on Google Earth, accessible to hundreds of millions of users, as well as a user-friendly global MPA web portal at www.protectplanetocean.org should be able to draw interest and support sharing of information amongst governments, conservationists, practitioners and the public alike to achieve that increased knowledge. Decisions about where to establish new MPAs need to be supported by relevant information on species, habitats and livelihoods across the oceans. Initial efforts have already been made to pull together species information and habitat data for optimized MPA planning, marking an innovative new partnership of experts for conservation.


It is evident that increasing concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG) and related changes in the Earth's climate as well as ocean chemistry pose a significant threat to ocean and coastal ecosystems. This threat needs to be addressed in the context of the many direct drivers of change, including overexploitation and pollution, most of which are exacerbated by climate change.

While the threats facing the marine environment in some respects are similar to those facing terrestrial habitats, the solutions must be rooted in an understanding of and carefully address the differences marine work faces. In addition, there is an urgent need for global agreement on management strategies in areas beyond national jurisdiction as well as the need to apply rights-based approaches to fisheries management and to meet internationally agreed targets on effectively-managed and ecologically coherent networks of MPAs.

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