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The case for creating networks of marine protected areas

3 December 2019

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Resilience in the Arctic: Facing the Future. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

There is no question that human activity is having a major impact on our oceans. Pollution, shipping, overfishing and increased boat traffic due to tourism, combined with ocean warming and acidification, are all contributing to the deterioration of marine ecosystems. But networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) offer a means of protecting species, habitats and ecosystems throughout the Arctic.

John Roff has been looking at the idea of establishing MPAs for more than 25 years. Currently the lead scientist with the Marine Ecological Conservation for the Canadian Eastern Arctic Project (MECCEA)—a WWF-Canada initiative to identify a network of priority areas for marine conservation in Canada’s eastern Arctic—he is also a retired professor of marine conservation and former editor of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. Roff says creating a network of MPAs in the Arctic needs to happen now—before it is too late.

Why are marine protected areas so important?

They’re the only effective means we have of protecting the marine environment. Fisheries quotas were the original method, but they’ve proved ineffective. Basically, there are two ways in which you can try to protect the oceans. One is by restricting fishing activity, or by fisheries’ quotas. The other is by closing off areas. It’s been shown over and over again that closing selected areas of the oceans is a very effective means of protecting not only biodiversity as a whole but fish stocks too. It protects the fisheries as well as the areas where fishery recruitment (young fish entering a population) is important, resulting in what we call spill-over effects. If you protect a particular area where fish are abundant and localised, that will enhance the populations in those areas and they will actually act as seed areas for surrounding regions.

What about the Arctic context? How successful have marine protected areas been in the Arctic?

I don’t think we’ve really evaluated that yet. There’s a great deal of difference between just establishing a protected area and monitoring it to find out whether the protection has been successful. Monitoring of protected areas in the Arctic is pretty much in its infancy. Although there are protected areas in the North—Tuvaijuittuq off the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Ocean is a significant one—I would say that the most important biological area in the eastern Arctic right now is Lancaster Sound. That area is hugely important for marine mammals and bird populations.

The idea of establishing protected areas in the Arctic is quite recent. In Canada, we have three areas that have been closed to fisheries, but that was done so recently that they haven’t been evaluated yet. Yet evaluation is precisely what is needed now—and that means having effective monitoring programmes in place.

Why are marine protected areas particularly important in the Arctic?

In most areas of the world, we’re trying to protect marine environments that are already degraded in hopes that they will re-establish themselves and become seed populations and biodiversity sources for other regions. But in the Arctic, we have the chance to protect something before it has become massively degraded. Instead of trying to play catch-up, we have the chance to protect something that is in nearly pristine condition, which is unusual. There are estimates that only something like 12 percent of the world’s oceans is in an untouched or pristine condition—and most are in the Arctic.

There have been some recent initiatives in the Arctic to protect areas. In fact, the Canadian government has really done quite well. But while some MPAs, such as Tuvaijuittuq, have been protected from development through legislation under the Oceans Act, Canada Wildlife Act or National Marine Conservation Act, others have been “protected” very quickly by simply closing fisheries (under the Fisheries Act). Closures protect species by creating marine refuges but unlike MPAs, refuges don’t restrict activities like oil and gas extraction. In addition, there’s no pattern of connectivity among the areas, so while some are now protected (or closed), it wasn’t done in accordance with any overall strategy.

Why is it important to have networks that connect protected areas?

An individual protected area is not sustainable by itself. People have talked in the past about “ecological integrity.” But there is really no such thing as ecological integrity when we’re talking about an isolated, protected area because the organisms that enter it come from other places. Likewise, the organisms that live within it can move from the protected area to other areas, whether by actively migrating or by means of ocean currents. So a protected area is not just an isolated lake. There’s no such thing as an isolated lake in the oceans. These areas have organisms coming in and out and moving through them.

Connectivity is important because it protects the natural processes of recruitment. What we are trying to do in our modelling studies, as part of the MECCEA project, is to identify those natural processes of recruitment—whether it is larger organisms migrating into the areas, such as marine mammals or birds, or smaller organisms like larvae or propagules that come from the benthic animals moving around various areas.

How critical is timing, since we're seeing the Arctic Ocean open up more and more to shipping as sea ice disappears?

Changes are happening in the Arctic much more quickly than anybody ever expected. There will be increased pressure for shipping. And although a lot of fisheries are on hold in the high Arctic, as areas open up, there will be more and more pressure to move in and exploit resources. Tourism in the Arctic has also grown massively in the last few years, and will certainly increase. These changes are already affecting local communities, so I think there’s an urgent need to do something very quickly.

JOHN ROFF is the lead scientist with MECCEA.

Martine Giangioppi
Senior specialist, Arctic marine conservation