Coral Triangle Center

USA - OPINION: Protecting the right 30% of our ocean

Today only 11% of Marine Protected Areas are inside territorial waters. Most are established offshore, far from the biodiversity-rich territorial seas

Rocky Sanchez Tirona is the managing director of the Fish Forever program at Rare. Steve Gaines is the dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California-Santa Barbara.


Disappearing forests. Declining fish stocks. Rising sea levels. A global biodiversity crisis is threatening nature that sustains us all.

In response to these challenges, the UN Convention on Biodiversity set a target of conserving 30 percent of land and ocean by 2030. National governments and international organizations are participating in the 30x30 campaign to achieve it.

The 30x30 campaign is a unique opportunity. It is inspiring to see countries come together in support of an ambitious goal. But are global efforts to protect the ocean directing support and resources where they can have the greatest impact for people and nature?

To meet global goals for protecting biodiversity, we must make sure we’re protecting the full array of ocean regions that have large impacts on biodiversity.

At the top of the list would be the territorial seas – the thin band of ocean up to 12 nautical miles from shore. This area is home to 100% of mangroves, 100% of seagrass beds, 100% of kelp forests, and 83% of coral reefs – all critical habitats for fish and other ocean life. These coastal regions are also where high biodiversity meets high human use.

Coastal communities throughout the developing tropics depend on healthy coastal fisheries for food and livelihoods. These fisheries employ 50 of the 51 million small-scale fishers globally. They produce 40% of global fish catch. And nearly all fish caught in these fisheries goes toward human consumption making them essential to food security.

But today, only 11% of Marine Protected Areas – the main tool in protecting oceans – are inside territorial waters. Most are established offshore, far from the biodiversity-rich territorial seas.

Why? Because it’s socially and politically easier to protect areas far from densely populated regions. Although there are important benefits from successes in offshore protection, addressing the disparity in more coastal protection is critical if we want 30x30 to have a globally meaningful impact on nature and people.

Fortunately, there is a proven path of how it can be done.

First, we need to pair protection with effective management. Local and indigenous communities depend on territorial waters for food and jobs - they can’t be all off limits.

But pairing no-take reserves with areas where sustainable fishing is allowed, and making sure the rights to fish in those areas are reserved for indigenous and local fishers, ensures that communities benefit from conservation. We call this system Managed Access with Reserves.

Next, embrace “bigger isn’t always better.” In territorial waters, networks of smaller marine reserves, designed with larval dispersal data to protect the lifecycle of fish and provide connectivity between protected areas, can help biodiversity, fish populations, and fisheries recover.

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