At the recent Our Ocean conference in Malta, bold commitments were made to set aside an additional 2.5 million square kilometers of ocean as Marine Protected Areas. The international recommendation is that we need to protect a minimum of 30% of our ocean by 2020. Currently we have from 3-6% protected, with only 1.5% of that protected as “no-take” zones. If Marine Protected Areas are truly Seed Banks for the future then that is not nearly enough.


Moving from Preservation to Restoration

rapa nui marine protected area PEW Trust, marine life fish coral reef, pacific ocean seed banks

As we move much of our conservation work from preservation to resilience and restoration, Marine Protected Areas are one of our best tools. By setting aside large, ecologically important, biodiverse habitats, we provide spaces for fish, coral and other animals to grow and reproduce away from many of the human impacts that diminish their populations. Fisheries around the world are becoming depleted; coral reefs are struggling in the face of stronger storms, warmer, more acidic oceans, and human impacts such as pollution, nutrification, and overfishing. Even the open ocean is losing vast amounts of krill, sharks and other fish to unmanaged fishing in international waters (2/3 of the ocean lies beyond any country’s jurisdiction). (photo – PEW Trust)

The damage to our oceans has and is already happening, so we must turn much of our efforts towards restoration. But there is hope. Dr. Sylvia Earle and Mission Blue created a “Hope Spot” Marine Protected Area in Mexico at Cabo Pulmo, and the marine life has almost completely recovered in only ten years.


Marine Protected Areas: Seed Banks for Restocking the Ocean!

anemone fish philippines coral reef heather kuklken marine protected area: seed banks of the futureMarine Protected Areas can provide a seed bank of sorts to restock the ocean. If fish are protected long enough to mature fully and produce offspring inside of no-take MPAs, research has shown that local and commercial fisherman will see their stocks increase. There are 672% more fish biomass in no-take zones.

Fisherfolk are spending more and more time fishing for smaller and smaller fish. Now many of them are asking for MPAs to be created to sustain their source of income and provide protein for their families and for future generations.


The Hope of Recovery!

MPAs Marine Protected areas Seed Banks of the Ocean shark Heather Kuhlken “In the past two decades, we have lost 90% of the world’s sharks.  But we still have 10% of the sharks!” (Dr. Sylvia Earle) We still have the hope of recovery. In Palau, where 80% of the water is a Marine Protected Area, we saw sharks on every dive, an experience I have not had diving since the 1990’s.  To be effective, MPAs must be thoughtfully created, effectively monitored, and locals must participate in the decisions to create and protect their MPA as a bank for their own future resources.


“We save the oceans because in doing that, we are really saving ourselves!”


MPAs must include Migration Paths!

Ecosystems can be rebuilt and preserved as whole systems (even when missing key players such as sharks) if MPAs are widespread and interconnected. They must allow for the inclusion of natural migration paths. Strong, balanced and complete ecosystems are more resilient and have been shown to fare better through ocean warming events. If the fish and corals are healthy, diverse, and plentiful enough within an MPA to reproduce, they will be able to replenish populations in nearby areas as well as within the MPA. These sources of invertebrate larvae and fish fry are essential to rebuilding ocean populations.

Coral reefs provide valuable protection from storm surge for coastal communities. In the US alone, we have had three of the most devastating hurricanes in history in just a few weeks’ time. Much of the damage from hurricanes is caused by storm surge. As storm strength increases due to a warming ocean, the role of coral reefs (and mangroves) become even more essential to human health and safety. MPAs hold more robust and resilient coral populations and could be a key strategy to protect coastal areas from storm surge. “We are protected by the natural world.” (“Earth A New Wild” #1)

MPAs also provide tourist income from ecotourism worldwide. As fish stocks decrease, tourism becomes a viable alternative income in many coastal places.


Case Study of an MPA in the Philippines

Recently, I had the opportunity to dive in the Philippines while attending a coral reef symposium. We did several dives both inside and outside of Marine Protected Areas.


Outside the MPA anchors and fishing nets were destroying the reef

fishing net on coral reef philippines heather kuhlken marine protected area: seed banks of the futureOutside the MPA, our own dive operator dropped an anchor on the reef because there were no mooring buoys in the area. Coral and fish populations were present, but sparse, frequently diseased, and less diverse. The fish seem to have decreased in size every year over my last 26 years of diving.  In Florida, Mexico, Hawaii, and the South Pacific, the grouper were tiny, and parrotfish are suddenly almost absent, where I used to see schools of them on every dive. In some areas, there seems to be nothing on the reef larger than the palm of my hand. And coral was growing over fishing nets left on the bottom.

In nine dives in one week within a ten, square mile area, I saw some of the most depressing reefs with anchors and nets tangled around coral, no large fish, only a few species of coral.


The MPA was Teeming with Marine Life

coral reef with soft corals philippines heather kuhlken marine protected areas seed banks of the futureHowever, inside the MPA, just a few miles away and only 1 day later, the corals cover every square inch of the bottom, large fish form massive schools and the diversity of species is incredible.

Forming, monitoring and connecting Marine Protected Areas can act as seed banks to replenish fish, coral and invertebrate populations, provide sustainable income, and inspire hope for future generations of humans.

“We must turn the tragedy of the commons into the success of the community.” – Her Excellency Isabella Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden

By Heather Kuhlken, Blue Ocean Network contributor

Photos by Heather Kuhlken unless otherwise identified


See these additional, related Blue Ocean Posts on MPAs

Hopes Dashed, Hopes Raised for World’s Largest MPA in Eastern Antarctic
Marine Protected Areas: Good News, Bad News
Trump Attacks EPA and Marine Protected Areas
Marine Protected Areas: Giant Leap for Fish Kind
Misool Ranger Patrol – Defending the Heart of Marine Biodiversity, Part I
Misool Ranger Patrol – Defending the Heart of Marine Biodiversity, Part II
Misool Eco-Resort Celebrates Ten Years of Marine Conservation
Illegal Trafficking of Wildlife: What You Need To Know!
Update: Greater Damage To the Raja Ampat Reef Than Thought!
Traditional Fishing Communities: a Necessary Part of the Discussion


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