Our Perspectives


Treasure or tragedy – our ocean commons

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Expanding marine protected areas is imperative for biodiversity and ecosystem health. It is also essential for social welfare and the economy. Photo: Shutterstock/divedog

In the run up to the Ocean Conference in June, this blog series explores issues related to oceans, seas, marine resources and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life below water.

Bunaken National Marine Park, Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2011.  

The sea was a bit too choppy for my liking. But there was a volcano erupting inland. The sea looked like a safer option! I took the plunge and jumped off the boat with my snorkel and fins.

Around me was a new world. So serene, so many layers. Wonderfully coloured fish clustered around corals, sea turtles flapped by, and there was a darkness beneath a canyon wall that told of depths beyond the reach of sunlight. Down there, I knew, were coelacanths. Once believed to have gone extinct 66 million years ago, these fish have in fact out-lived the dinosaurs.         

If aliens arrived from outer space, they wouldn’t call our planet Earth.  They would call it planet Sea. Seventy-one percent of our planet’s surface is covered in water. The depths are profound.  Just imagine having the whole Himalayan or Andean mountain range upside down beneath the ocean face. That is just a taster.

The oceans sustain creatures we haven’t even discovered, but they also keep terrestrial life going. More than 3 billion people depend on them as their primary source of protein. Shipping lanes keep commerce thriving and the water regulates the temperature and atmosphere.

Coastal regions – mangroves, tidal flats, etc. – are often referred to as nurseries for fish. But they are also the cradle of humanity. We abuse them at our own cost.  This is exactly what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize.

SDG 14 aims to conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are the safety net for this vast treasure contained in areas far bigger than all the continents put together.  Indeed, the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016 passed a motion to protect 30 percent of oceans by 2030.

MPA expansion is imperative for biodiversity and ecosystem health. It is also essential for social welfare and the economy. A 2015 study  concluded that the economic rate of return on money invested in expanding MPA networkss is as high as 24 percent. UNDP currently has around 40 MPA projects in 37 countries, and we’ve seen clear evidence for the linkage between marine biodiversity conservation and social and economic benefits.

undp-ID-Mt Lokon-eruption-2017Mount Lokon is among the most active volcanoes in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo: Midori Paxton

On the eastern coast of India, a project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) established an active community-based eco-tourism programme, unleashing the potential of the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary, with benefits for biodiversity and local communities. It helped build 4-km long (!) raised wooden walkway that enables visitors to enjoy guided walks through the biodiverse mangrove forests. A portion of the fees is paid into a Community Fund used to address agreed local development needs.  Women and men are trained in alternative livelihood activities such as  tailoring, coir making and the production of handicrafts. Women’s self-help groups are supported, and many tourist accommodations are run by women.

In Maldives, our GEF financed project supported an increase in MPAs in Baa Atoll. This biodiversity-based activity now represents 47 percent of employment and 51 percent of business earnings for the Baa Atoll local population.

Conservation of coral reefs protects the coastline from waves and storms, limiting coastal erosion and saving millions of dollars in potential damage. The establishment of Maldives’ whole territory as a biosphere reserve should help maintain 89 percent of GDP and 98 percent of exports directly depending on coastal and marine biodiversity.

Progress towards meeting SDG target 14.5 on MPA is slow. So far only less than 4 percent of the world’s oceans are protected, mostly in areas under national jurisdiction. Given that the marine areas beyond national jurisdiction account for nearly 95 percent of oceanic water volume, the areas under protection are not even the tip of this iceberg

If all of the currently proposed MPAs are established as planned, the total MPA area would reach 6.4 percent of the ocean. This is good but not nearly sufficient. If you have an important self-regenerating asset, would you keep such a small percentage and spend the rest?

Oceans are a common treasure without physical boundaries. Treasure has always attracted pirates. We need more guardians – MPAs – against piracy in areas within and beyond national jurisdictions. After all, the seas are our life.

I emerged from the Sulawesi sea and Mt Lokon was still belching out smoke.  Beneath me the fish were thriving. Because they were protected!   

Oceans blog series Oceans Sustainable development Environment Blog post Midori Paxton

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