VLMPAs Face Risks of Becoming Paper Parks

Image © CNN

President Obama at Midway Atoll. Image © CNN

Two definitions are needed here at the outset: VLMPAs are “very large marine protection areas” and “paper parks” is a phrase used by conservationists and researchers to convey the idea of parks designated by governments only on paper – that is, they don’t get appropriate funding or management to create actual conservation within park limits. Most paper parks are found in developing nations where politicians may have good intentions in setting aside land to protect, but then don’t have enough resources to enforce the rules adequately, or in worse-case scenarios turn a blind eye to extraction if it favors them. Last week I discussed a possible race for bigger parks, and both examples happened to be marine in nature. Two researchers have commented in the academic journal Marine Policy to warn against creating ever-larger marine parks in remote areas that might be hard to monitor, unless there’s commitment for real enforcement. John Vidal reports:

“It is not enough to simply cover the remotest parts of our oceans in notional ‘protection’ – we need to focus on seas closer to shore, where most of the fishing and drilling actually happens,” said Peter Jones, a marine researcher at University College London.

Co-author Elizabeth de Santo, an assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, added that the push for quantity over quality threatens to undermine sustainability.

“There are concerns that marine conservation aims could be undermined by this focus on a few big areas. The marine biodiversity target is about much more than the proportion of the seas that are covered,” she said.

In the past five years over 20 huge new marine parks have been designated by countries, including Britain, in response to calls by marine scientists to protect more of the oceans.

The Papahānaumokuākea park off Hawaii, which will cover 582,578 square miles and include the world’s longest and most remote chain of coarl islands, is by some way the world’s biggest, covering an area larger than all US country’s national parks combined.

The authors question the motives of the conservationists. “Every time there is a new ‘leader’ in the size stakes, it is feted… giving the impression of a competitive edge. This race has been enthusiastically supported by conservation campaign groups and donors, and many governments have joined in, all keen to gain the green credentials associated with remote VLMPAs,” says the paper in the journal Marine Policy.

But other marine scientists this week defended the size of the VLMPAs. “Size is often a critical component of effectiveness. What is needed is for the conservation NGOs to wake up to the fact that size isn’t everything, and to push equally hard for representative, equitable, effective, local, nearshore protected areas,” said Nature Conservancy marine researcher Mark Spalding, in email correspondence.

The global target, agreed in 2010 at the Convention for biological diversity meeting in Japan, is to designate 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. But what has happened, say the authors, is that countries have taken the politically easy route, creating vast parks in remote places without taking into account their conservation value or their ability or countries’ willingness to police them.

There is now a great imbalance between a few giant protected areas and the many thousands very small ones which together cover only 3.27% of the global marine area, they say. “Without remote VLMPAs , the 10% target would be even further from being reached,” said Jones.

The authors emphasise that they do not discourage the designation of vast remote MPAs, but fear that by focusing on size could divert attention, political will and resources from the need for smaller MPAs in seas that are being overfished.

With the proliferation of VLMPAs, I’m reminded of the creation of the first national parks in the US, which were also massive and in areas where natural resources for ready extraction were relatively low. Read the rest of the article above at The Guardian.

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