Why marine protection matters for people and nature

By Gemma Parkes, Communications Lead, Ocean Action Agenda, World Economic Forum | February 20, 2023
  • An effectively protected ocean is essential for the health of planet Earth and all its inhabitants.
  • Increasing and strengthening Marine Protected Areas can help improve the ocean’s abundance and resilience while meeting globally agreed commitments.
  • Creating a well-protected and sustainably managed ocean is a tough challenge, but by working together across borders it can be met – and 2023 presents a suite of critical opportunities for meaningful global action.

Marine protection is important for its own sake. We are only passing through this world and must leave behind a thriving planet – at least as healthy as when we arrived – for those who follow.

Equally, an effectively protected ocean is essential for people and prosperity in the here and now – and to have hope for a better, healthier and more resilient future for coastal communities around the world.

Coastal resilience, job security, sustainable fishing, equitable tourism, pollution-free beaches, renewable energy and so much more – these tributes of a healthy ocean promise boundless dividends for people everywhere, for generations to come. The sustainable and equitable use of effectively managed ocean resources is best ensured through the establishment and maintenance of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These safeguard the health of life below and above the ocean surface.

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals – including SDG14 for the ocean – were established by all UN Member States to serve as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet now and into the future.” Under SDG14, there is a specific target to “sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve a healthy and productive ocean” – as well as pledges to tackle marine pollution and overfishing in all its forms. Increasing MPAs feeds into all of these.

At COP15, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in December 2022, countries came together in signing off on the Global Biodiversity Framework. They committed to protecting at least 30% of land and ocean by 2030, a long-called-for benchmark of planetary protection known as ‘30×30.’

Sylvia Earle – a marine biologist, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, lifelong diver, and member of the Friends of Ocean Action community hosted by the World Economic Forum, affectionately known as Her Deepness – speaks of the hope engendered by every new stretch of protected ocean. Her global marine conservation movement, Mission Blue, identifies ‘Hope Spots’ – places that are scientifically identified as critical to the health of the global ocean. A new Hope Spot was recently announced around the Greater Skellig Coast in southwest Ireland, a spectacular area of ocean whose protection is being enshrined in law in 2023.

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Ocean Action in 2023

In January, the World Economic Forum’s Ocean Action Agenda and Friends of Ocean Action released the statement Ocean Action in 2023, calling for continued ambitious progress to achieve ocean health through the suite of opportunities ahead.

The first of these opportunities was the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC5) that took place in Vancouver, Canada, on 3-9 February 2023, highlighted as a major stepping stone towards achieving the 30×30 goal.

Many diverse bursts of commitment for ocean protection were announced during IMPAC5, building on the growing momentum of ocean action. These range from defining minimum required standards for effective MPAs, to pledges for ocean conservation. The Canadian Government also joined a growing swell of voices calling for a precautionary approach to the potential exploitation of resources in the deep ocean, by declaring an effective moratorium on deep seabed mining under its jurisdiction.

Canada launches first marine bioregion

The creation of Canada’s first marine bioregion was announced to help protect the ecologically and culturally significant area of Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala on the coast of British Columbia – which, at 133,000 km², is Canada’s largest MPA to date. It brings Canada on track to protect 25% of its ocean by 2025. Canada also pledged a financial contribution of $30 million dollars to the Great Blue Wall. This funding for the Western Indian Ocean-led, African-driven roadmap to achieve a nature-positive world by 2030 will focus primarily on the Regenerative Seascapes for People, Climate and Nature project.

Indigenous peoples and first nations, as well as young people from around the world, were front and centre at IMPAC5, with wide applause for the diversity and inclusion of the broadest range of stakeholders at this congress. Diverse voices were valued for their critically important perspectives, knowledge, ideas, solutions, care and ecological stewardship of our ocean. The climate, nature, biodiversity and ocean crises cannot be solved unless we bring everyone to the table.

Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action, highlighted the high stakes of the congress: “Our common purpose here is to put teeth into the commitment to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, start identifying the best and most life-preserving locations for Marine Protected Areas around the globe and find new and durable systems to fund them. We cannot afford to fail at 30×30 – there is too much at stake, for the life in our ocean and the people who depend on it.”

Agreeing the High Seas Treaty

More opportunities abound in the coming months for ocean hope and good news, as highlighted in the statement Ocean Action in 2023. Up next, countries need to conclude a robust and binding High Seas Treaty at IGC5bis (the extended negotiations for the Fifth Intergovernmental Conference for Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) in New York.

Meanwhile, members of the World Trade Organization must complete the task of formally accepting the deal agreed in 2022 to phase out the most harmful of fisheries subsidies, which until entry-into-force will continue to fund activities that lead to overfishing – still depleting our ocean resources and disadvantaging those who depend on them for their very survival. Switzerland was the first country to present its acceptance of the WTO deal – at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2023. We look forward to others soon following suit.

In keeping with the spirit of hope, ocean photographer and activist Cristina Mittermeier, speaking in a summary video at the IMPAC5 closing ceremony, said: “We must focus on the positives. Martin Luther King did not start his speech saying, ‘I have a nightmare.’ He told us what the dream was.”

The course ahead is riven with crests and troughs – but together we can and must do all in our power to navigate with hope to a brighter future for our blue planet, where a well-protected and sustainably managed ocean is reaching its full potential to enable people and the planet to thrive.


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