Targets for marine conservation have been important since 1998, when 1,605 scientists from around the world signed a call for governments to protect 20% of the world’s seas from all threats by 2020. Since then, several formal targets for marine protected area coverage have been announced. The most significant of these is the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi target, which stipulates that at least 10% of the world’s seas should be effectively conserved through systems of marine protected areas by 2020.
Increasingly, the targets have been achieved by designating giant marine protected areas, often around remote islands. The first of these was the 340,000-square-kilometre (131,275-square-mile) Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, designated in 2000 and larger than all of the United States’ national parks combined. This giant marine protected area was later included in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which is even larger at 362,000 square kilometres (139,800 square miles). Initially open to bottom trawling, the area was protected from all fishing in 2011 because, although ‘bigger is better’, it is also considered that ‘no-take is best’. The race was on.
There have been many more designations in the competition to declare the largest marine protected areas in the world and add to the list of ‘flagship’ giant sanctuaries. Many governments have joined in the race and it has been enthusiastically supported by conservation campaign groups and donors – all keen to gain the green credentials associated with such designations. This has led to 80% of global marine protected area coverage being contained in just 16 such large, remote reserves, so without them we would be even further from achieving the 10% target. Recent research on the effectiveness of marine protected areas* provides scientific evidence to support the race. It found that there are five key features of marine protected areas that promote the achievement of effective conservation: they need to be large, well enforced, no-take, old and isolated from areas that are fished. However, a related paper argues that marine protected areas are increasingly biased towards remote areas that haven’t been commercially exploited. This means that they can often be closed with limited political costs (they tend to be remote, in overseas territories where few, if any, voters live) and with relatively small economic costs (commercial exploiters tend to be foreign fishing vessels).
From the perspective of national governments, it is clear that giant and remote marine protected areas are win-win in that they gain green credentials and contribute to achieving the Aichi target. Why go through the politically and economically expensive process of designating small marine protected areas around the mainland when you can designate vast marine protected areas in overseas territories with minimal costs and many gains? From the perspective of conservation campaigners and donors, such sanctuaries deliver high-profile benefits in that they safeguard large areas of relatively pristine sea from the pressures of the fishing industry. The persuasiveness of such rationales is evident in the growing number of them and the proportion of global marine protected area coverage that they represent.