Case study

Redefining ocean protection targets

Our research is demonstrating the need for brisk action to be taken to protect our oceanic ecosystems.

Turtle trying to eat a plastic bag.

The issue

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, coastal nations committed to establishing national networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2012. At the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2004, a target of protecting ten per cent of the sea by the same year was introduced.

This target was missed. Since then, the target of protecting at least ten per cent of the ocean by 2020 was established and became a key element of UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 in 2015.

With 2020 now fast approaching, the world is considering what the international conservation targets should be after this deadline.

The research

Our research sought to answer the question of whether the UN target of ten per cent is enough and, if not, how much of the ocean do we need to protect?

We synthesised all available evidence to 2015, finding a total of 144 relevant studies. We then assessed whether the UN target is adequate to achieve, maximise or optimise six environmental and socioeconomic objectives:

  • representation of biodiversity
  • ensuring ecological connectivity among protected sites
  • avoidance of population collapse
  • avoidance of adverse, fisheries-induced evolution
  • enhancement of fisheries yield
  • meeting the needs of multiple stakeholder groups.

The results consistently indicated that protecting several tens of percent of the sea is required to meet these objectives, greatly exceeding the 2.2 per cent of the sea protected at the time of the research.

We concluded that the UN’s ten per cent target is insufficient to protect biodiversity, preserve ecosystem services and achieve socioeconomic priorities. Instead, increasing coverage of MPAs to at least 30 per cent of the sea would produce a much greater likelihood of achieving intended outcomes in biodiversity conservation, improved fisheries management, ecological connectivity and enhanced resilience.

The outcome

Using the results of our research, a motion was prepared for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress 2016 in support of raising the ocean protection target, coordinated by the Pew Charitable Trusts who assisted our study.

The motion stated that decision makers need to be mindful that scientific evidence supports full protection of at least 30 per cent of the ocean to reverse existing adverse impacts, increase resilience to climate change and sustain long-term ocean health.

It went on to encourage IUCN state and government agency members to designate and implement at least 30 per cent of each marine habitat in a network of highly protected MPAs. It urged members to engage constructively in establishing MPAs in areas beyond their national jurisdiction as well as within their own marine borders, the ultimate aim being a fully sustainable ocean. 

Following our research, the IUCN World Conservation Congress voted in 2016, by an 89 per cent majority, to increase the recommended target to at least 30 per cent ocean protection by 2030.

The UK is the first major economy to formally adopt this as a target.

Featured researcher
Callum Roberts

Callum Roberts

Professor Roberts has extensive experience in studying the function and theory of marine reserves. He has served on a US National Research Council Committee on marine protected areas and has also been a member of the Marine Reserves Working Group.

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Featured researcher
Julie Hawkins

Julie Hawkins

Dr Hawkins' research focus is human impact on marine ecosystems and how to reduce the problems these create. She is particularly interested in studying the impact of fishing.

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Featured researcher
Bethan O’Leary

Bethan O’Leary

Dr O'Leary continues to play an active role in advancing the goal of protecting at least 30 per cent of the sea by 2030. She informs negotiations for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

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