Environment – Why protect nature?

There are many good reasons for people to conserve biodiversity. Biodiversity is what our lives and ecosystems depend upon, and it includes natural resources that must be used wisely so that they can continue being harvested in the future. Over thousands of years, people have developed a range of extensive and intensive methods to improve natural resource “management” in agriculture, forestry, hunting, fisheries and aquaculture; some more sustainable than others. Biodiversity must also be conserved in a natural state for philosophical, educational, scientific, aesthetic and ecological reasons. Sometimes these protected areas are called “wilderness”.

International and scientific policies support the need for such wild areas, and that they should be representative of all habitats and species on Earth, and be sufficient in area to be naturally functioning ecosystems.

However, conservation can easily conflate these forms of ‘conservation’, because there can be a continuum of human activities in areas that are ‘no-go’ to the public such as on private property and military training areas, ‘no-take’ such as parks and reserves, ‘actively managed’ such as farmed and harvested, or ‘unmanaged commons’, which includes most of the oceans.

MPAs in practice

In the ocean, the use of the term Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is being applied to all kinds of areas, and more than 90 per cent do not even aim to protect nature in a natural condition.

In effect, these MPAs aim to be more sustainably managed (restrictions on indiscriminate fishing methods and/or seabed trawling that destroys habitats).

Yet, under the UN Convention on the Law of Sea and UN Sustainable Development

Goals, countries have agreed to sustainably manage resources in all of the oceans. So, if we follow current usage of the term, then all of the ocean should be an “MPA”.

Within that measurement there need to be areas set aside for nature to flourish without human interference. Scientific advice suggests this strongly protected area should be at least 30 per cent of the ocean. Such an MPA concept is now the policy of several Pacific island nations where they have declared their seas MPAs.

In addition, some international treaties and agreements protect the oceans in more specific ways, including from nuclear testing, pollution, hunting large whales and more. So precedents for binding, effective international agreements exist.

I suggest that it is essential, and more practical, for marine conservation to focus on fully-protected (no-take) marine reserves for several reasons:

1.    Nature conservation – any regular fishing alters food webs and ecosystems (i.e. biodiversity) as the top predators are typically removed.

2.    Practical – there are thousands of so-called MPAs that are really a form of local fishery management. Focusing on fully protected reserves is less work (there are 10 times fewer) and easier to enforce.

3.    Management efficacy and governance

4.    Ethics and public expectations – to allow routine killing of animals in a conservation area just seems wrong.

5.    Honesty – to permit killing in a conservation area sends society and government officials the message that it is “okay” to kill some marine life because it does not alter natural biodiversity, which numerous studies show is untrue.

6.    Economic – there is no added cost for creating reserves when the same areas were already subject to fishing restrictions. Subsequent ‘spill-over’ (natural export) of fish from sufficiently large reserves will benefit fisheries as well as safeguarding genetically diverse fishery brood-stock (if reserves are located where such fish can thrive).

Resource management should be the responsibility of qualified authorities, whether it is in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining or aquaculture. Where biodiversity is to be left in a natural condition, this is the responsibility of conservation specialists.

The muddling of what is conserved may be more of an issue in the ocean because its environment is commonly considered “wild”. It may be wild, but it is not pristine due to centuries of hunting for whales, seals, turtles and birds, as well as fishing.

Several species are already extinct. It’s also well-established that marine food webs change when top predators – such as otters, lobsters and large fish – are removed, with resulting changes causing trophic cascades that reshape entire ecosystems.

Even recreational and subsistence fishing can alter ecosystems in this way.

Thus, stricter protection of marine biodiversity through no-take ‘marine reserves’ is urgently needed. Only one-third of coastal countries even have one strong, no-take marine reserve.

Ideally, every country should have several reserves so that their people can see and enjoy the benefits first hand. This progress would conserve the natural marine environment’s biodiversity for generations to come.

By Professor Mark Costello,
a member of the GLORES Science Council and
a professor at the University of Auckland