The world’s oceans need expanded regions where fishing is barred to help preserve fragile ecosystems and protect them from what one leading biologist dubbed “a silent storm” driven by climate change.
The World Parks Congress, a once-in-a-decade event, wrapped up in Sydney on Wednesday with calls to ensure at least 30 per cent of marine-protected areas are made no-take zones by 2030.
Dan Laffoley, a marine biologist and vice-chair under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said expanded marine reserves were necessary to help the world’s oceans recover from over-fishing and pollution.
The protection was also crucial to help them cope with changes caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations that were warming the planet and making oceans more acidic, Dr Laffoley said.
“There’s a silent storm approaching which is often hidden,” Dr Laffoley said. Nations need to be prepared for changes that “are going to alter the temperature, the functioning and the chemistry of the ocean”.
The week-long gathering attracted more than 6000 delegates from 170 countries, ranging from leaders of Pacific islands to environment leaders and scientists.
The final declaration of the congress calling for “at least 30 per cent of each habitat type to be afforded strict protection” is non-binding but is expected to be central to discussions at the 2016 Mexico meeting to revise the Convention on Biological Diversity treaty.
Michelle Grady, oceans director of the Pew Charitable Trust, said the 30 per cent target had the status of “expert advice”, much like the science underpinning the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“At the centre of the world’s action plan for the oceans are sanctuaries for marine life,” Dr Grady said. “Sanctuaries are proven to allow fish and other marine life to recover and rebuild, and also create resilience from the ravages of climate change.”
Marine-protected areas amount to just 3.4 per cent of the world’s oceans now, of which only about one-fifth are preserved as no-take zones.
The international target is to raise the protected zones to 10 per cent by 2020.
“What the Parks Congress is saying is that we need to go much further beyond that,” Dr Laffoley said.
“The 30 per cent [goal] is to help them to think of where to put protection,” he said. “We should scale [the 2020 agreement] up but within that, we need to think about protecting examples of each of the habitat types and removing the pressures on them.”
Protected or not?
Host nation Australia tipped in $2 million to aid threatened species protection in national parks, $6 million to support Coral Triangle marine protection and another $6 million to combat illegal logging across the Asia-Pacific region.
“We committed to working with the United Nations General Assembly to protect the biodiversity of the high seas,” Environment Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement.
Mr Hunt described as “flat, plain wrong” earlier comments from Pew’s Dr Grady that Australia had suspended plans for a national network of marine parks that would have vastly increased current areas of protection.
“There is no suspension,” Mr Hunt told reporters on Wednesday. “All of those protected areas remain in place. What we’re doing is in some cases reviewing management plans.”
But Dr Grady said until the protection actually commences, the areas aren’t protected. “Until it’s on the water, it’s not real,” she said. If Australia were to start the protection, it would “instantly” meet Australia’s share of the 30 per cent goal of no-take protection set as the target at the conclusion of the meeting.
Other measures agreed by nations during or prior to the World Parks Congress include Bangladesh’s commitment to create its first marine-protected area to safeguard whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and other species.
Brazil also committed to protect 5 per cent of its marine waters and to consolidate 60 million hectares of protected areas in the Amazon by 2020, while China pledged to increase its protected areas by at least 20 per cent and its forest area by 40 million hectares.
Kiribati also signed an agreement with the US to jointly conserve nearly 490,000 square nautical miles in the Pacific, while the island nation of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean announced plans to triple its marine-protected area.
“The congress has propelled major commitments from leaders across all levels of society to secure the benefits protected areas provide to humanity and ensure a sustainable future,” Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director-general of the IUCN, said.