What Do Protected Waters Mean for Sea Life?
Conserving ocean life is critical — our oceans are home to everything from microscopic organisms to blue whales. These species depend on ocean health to survive, yet offshore oil and gas development, along with climate change and fishing, constantly threaten sea life. These issues are why oceans need to be conserved, managed and protected consistently.
The ocean is the largest ecosystem on Earth and contributes a great deal to human life as well, like with oxygen production. The United States has over 1,600 marine protected areas that cover 80 percent of national waters. The purpose of MPAs is to regulate human activity and prevent the loss of marine life. However, the amount of MPAs that exist doesn’t mean there’s an overabundance of protection, especially in areas that are poorly designed.
So what do protected waters mean for sea life?
Create Protected Areas Equally
Since some areas are more protected than others, it’s difficult to truly assess just how much protection marine life has in U.S. waters. MPAs range from lenient to strict — some even prohibit human entry. They come in many forms and are established and managed by different levels of the government. MPAs are created for many reasons – to protect the world’s ecosystems, preserve natural and cultural resources and sustain fisheries production.
While the majority of MPAs are multiple-use sites where boating, surfing, fishing, diving and other activities are allowed, others affect only one specific species — not the overall area and its inhabitants. Fishing, for example, is permitted in over half of U.S. waters, therefore endangering over half of marine life, but some of it is protected.
The Union for Conservation of Nature created a system that categorizes protected areas based on their level of protection in international bodies like New Zealand and Australia. However, the U.S. does not yet use this system that would make marine protection more transparent, therefore improving it.
The reason the U.S. is not on board is that too many current MPAs would be decommissioned. The U.S. allows regulated waters for fisheries management to be considered MPAs — the Union for Conservation of Nature system does not. The U.S. needs to follow this same system to better protect sea life.
Put Strict MPAs in the Right Places
The strictest kind of MPA is called a no-take area, where fishing, offshore development and other, similar operations are prevented. Because of their strict rules, these no-take areas have a better chance of preventing the loss of marine life, unlike less strict areas. Yet, they are located in the wrong areas — not in those that can actually reduce threats to sea life.
No-take areas are placed in waters with limited resources because of the economic incentives that come along with doing so. These low-cost waters have low economic value and are using up resources that could potentially save marine life. Most no-take areas in the U.S. are focused around deep, remote waters in the Central Pacific — unsuitable for extraction to begin with. So why are we protecting the wrong waters?
No-take areas cover only certain habitats, leaving the rest vulnerable to the outside world. Most conservation planning has a goal to protect samples of each habitat type that exists, but this doesn’t mean all efforts share the same goal. Thirty percent of each habitat’s area should be protected by no-takes, yet only two of the U.S. habitats in the central Pacific have this type of coverage. The other 16 habitats have one percent or less of this sort of coverage.
To solve this issue, the U.S. should have no-take areas in each habitat. This kind of solution will undoubtedly take careful planning, but it’s possible to protect 30 percent of each habitat with no-take areas.
Educate the Public
It isn’t enough to just have MPAs in place if the public doesn’t understand them or what their role is. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has partnered with environmental organizations and other groups to take on the task at hand and properly educate those who are a threat to sea life — you. It’s important that you understand that oceans are essential to life on Earth, and it’s your responsibility to contribute to their preservation.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has invested in signage, community outreach and other efforts, but with limited resources, the state of California cannot enforce the MPA network along its entire coast. Oceans can be better protected with stronger penalties and stricter conservation laws, so these are more than necessary, along with other efforts.
There are also ways you can educate yourself. Go whale watching so that you can learn how to help the animals you visit in their natural habitat. Your tour guide will inform you about sea life and the oceans around you, which will make you want to do more to protect the planet. Choose a company that has strict guidelines, as you don’t want to interrupt natural habitats by feeding sea life, touching them or making too many trips.
Follow Protection Acts and Treaties
Since the high seas have no borders, more issues arise due to overfishing, which can cause the extinction and depletion of marine mammal species. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the import, export, sale and hunting of marine mammals within U.S. jurisdiction, with certain exceptions. This protects marine mammals from people on ecotourism holidays and keeps them from being hunted, captured or killed.
You will face stiff penalties if you are caught harassing wildlife — a good incentive to treat marine life and their homes with respect.
The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, sometimes referred to as the Ocean Dumping Act, regulates dumping activities in oceans and other waters of the U.S. For years, dumping has made U.S. waters a marine garbage dump, but this act prohibits or strictly limits that kind of activity. In turn, it makes oceans safer to swim in for humans and marine life alike.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty also regulates the conduct of business in oceans and other bodies of water and protects the ocean’s health and resources from overuse.
The Earth’s oceans and bodies of water around us depend on our protection. With proper education, protection acts and treaties, along with effective MPAs, better-protected waters are right around the corner. However, it will take a team effort to drive this initiative so that sea life can continue to be safe. Prevention is where it all begins, and with proper planning and regulation, it can be done. It’s simple — oceans are essential to life here on earth. Treat them as such.
About the author
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.