Factsheet - MPAs

"Sanctuaries of the Seas - Are Marine Protected Areas for Cetaceans a Solution?" (Part 4)

The Alboran Sea. Photo - Chris Johnson

Introduction -

Marine Protected Areas, also known as MPAs or sometimes marine reserves or Sanctuaries, are the equivalent of national parks and protected areas on land. Their purpose is to protect and maintain marine biological diversity and associated cultural resources through effective management.

MPAs allow fish to spawn and grow, provide unspoilt natural sites for people to visit and offer areas for education and research.

Some people interpret MPAs to mean areas closed to all human activities. Others interpret them as special areas set aside for recreation and commercial use. In reality, “marine protected area” is a term that encompasses a variety of conservation and management methods.

An Ocean Planet

Marine conservation lags behind land conservation. To date, most MPAs have taken their lead from land-based (PAs) in terms of size, boundaries and management strategies. With few exceptions, MPAs tend to be of similar size to PAs. Yet, the world ocean occupies nearly three times as much surface area as the land. Using this ratio as a guideline, MPAs ought to be at least three times the size of, or three times more numerous than land- based parks. To date, approximately 12% of the world’s land area has protected status, compared to less than 1% of the world ocean and adjacent seas.

The marine environment requires new ways of thinking about conservation. Compared with land, the ocean is not only horizontal but also a vertical, three-dimensional world, with different biomes and accompanying species and ecosystems occurring at different layers of the water column to a depth of seven miles (10 kilometers) in the deepest trenches.

In a recent joint statement entitled ‘Troubled Waters: A Call to Action’, http://www.gdrc.org/oceans/troubled.html - more than 1600 hundred scientists and conservationists declared that we should aim for 20% of the sea as fully protected MPAs by the year 2020 if we are to have any hope of protecting ocean resources.

A Striped Dolphin. Photo - Chris Johnson

Why Cetaceans?

The 84 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, also known by the scientific term – cetaceans, face an increasing range of pressures across the world oceans, seas, coast and rivers. The long-term survival of populations depends upon healthy functioning marine ecosystems, yet very little marine habitat is formally protected.

Because of their educational, scientific and economic value, as well as, in general their need for large conservation areas, cetaceans may provide the key to protecting ocean habitats and bringing new large areas under conservation management for the benefit of entire ecosystems and users.

Pragmatically, cetaceans attract public awareness and tourism, and they require a large habitat area, which can protect many other species. As long as calls for cetacean MPAs are underpinned by solid ecological studies, they may well produce great gains for many more – if not most – of the species involved, including humans.

Critical Habitat

The problems of protecting shallow-water coral reef habitat for species fixed to the sea floor differ from the demands of trying to protect cetacean habitat for species that sometimes cross ocean basins.

Critical habitat refers to the parts of a cetacean’s range that are essential for day-to-day survival, as well as maintaining a healthy population growth rate. These include areas that are regularly used for feeding, breeding and raising calves, as well as sometimes migratory routes that are regularly used.

Unlike land-based critical habitat, marine critical habitat boundaries may be less fixed; especially in terms of hunting and feeding which are dependant on upwellings and ever-changing oceanic conditions.

This has been the era of studying live cetaceans rather than carcasses, and with these studies, scientists have uncovered certain details of the habitat needs of cetaceans. There remain large gaps with most species, especially those that spend their lives in deep waters and on the high seas, but the growing body of work is exciting, substantial and ready to be acted upon.

A Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Photo - Chris Johnson

Networks of MPAs

Rather than focusing only on individual areas, increasing attention is being paid to the idea of developing networks, or corridors of MPAs. This is partly in response to largely ineffective isolated ‘paper parks’ and the fact that networks accommodate the needs of many marine species that travel during their life, such as cetaceans which migrate, or travel in search of food or mates. In addition, cetaceans depend on food webs whose critical habitats may be widely separated.

High Seas MPAs

The main reason why so few MPAs have been proposed on the high seas is because the high seas are located outside the 200 nautical mile (371 kilometer) Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the countries of the world where no singe state or authority has the power to designate MPAs, adopt management schemes or enforce any sort of compliance. Yet of the 84 species of cetaceans, some 31 species probably spend most of their lives on the high seas, including breeding, calving, nursing feeding and migration. About 35 others have critical habitat in both high seas and national waters. In all, some 79% of all cetacean species have a strong high seas dependence.

The Pelagos Sanctuary for Marine Mammals in the Mediterranean Sea includes the high seas and the national waters of three countries – France, Monaco and Italy. The Pelagos sanctuary is an example that the challenge of high seas protection and international cooperation can be met.

Ecosystem-based management -

Single species, or exclusively cetacean oriented approaches are generally of limited value. The best conservation projects monitor the entire ecosystem, monitoring and protecting animals, plants and microorganisms, as well as considering people. They integrate marine areas with coastal communities.

An ecosystem-based approach means managing human interactions with ecosystems in order to protect and maintain ecosystem integrity and to minimize adverse impacts. This requires a whole ecosystem approach through ongoing scientific analysis and a commitment to adapt management practice quickly when new information signals a need for change.

Many threats originate within the MPA itself, such as fisheries, shipping, and noise. Others, such as pollution may originate outside the MPA, most pollution actually occurs on land before entering the seas, so this needs to be managed through legislation outside the jurisdiction of the MPA itself.

The habitat of wide-ranging species such as cetaceans is best protected through ecosystem-based management approaches using a carefully selected network of MPAs.

When do MPAs really work?

What we need to do now is adopt a precautionary approach and conserve sufficiently large marine areas that include cetacean hot spots as well as the areas we believe may have such conditions so that we can ensure that the options for future conservation are left open.

Still, we remain at the dawn of habitat protection for cetaceans. What is the ultimate goal of MPAs? According to Erich Hoyt, our ultimate goal is “to have a world in which we can share our space – our marine habitat – with these long-lived, social mammals, animals of awesome size and complex behavior, subjects of historical fascination and persistent mystery, animals that we are only beginning to understand – the whales, dolphins and porpoises.” So how large should MPAs be? “The larger and better protected they are, the more they will help replenish marine species and restore ecosystems.”

Resources -

- Hoyt, E. 2005. Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises – A World Handbook for Cetacean Conservation. Earthscan