Why Marine Protected Areas Matter

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Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, Oregon, U.S. source: Flikr

On August 26, 2016, the Obama Administration announced the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii from 360,000 to 1.5 million sq km. It is the largest no-take marine protected area (MPA) and the largest protected area in the world, land or sea. Coming at the end of the administration, the executive order demonstrates President Obama’s desire to have conservation as part of his legacy. More importantly, it is a reminder to the American public that its government must take measured steps to protect against the changing climate and support sustainable fisheries.

MPAs are not new, and are an important tool in government policy for conservation and fisheries management. In the U.S., they include a variety of environments, including open ocean, intertidal zones, estuaries, coastal areas and the Great Lakes. Many U.S. MPAs are mixed use, but some are no-take, which prohibit commercial and recreational extraction to enable ultimate protection for marine ecosystems. MPAs protect all types of habitats, plants and animals within U.S. waters, and even includes protection of shipwrecks or other cultural resources.

The purpose, management and legal authorities of MPAs also varies in the U.S. In 2000, President George Bush issued Executive Order 13158 which supported a comprehensive system of MPAs and established the MPA Center; yet it did not contain a mandate to override federal or state regulations or procedures. President Bush also originally designated the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, and as well as the Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments in January 2009. Overall, in the U.S., the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce oversees a majority (97%) of MPAs.

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The National Marine Protected Areas Center maintains a Classification System which functionally describes MPAs using five characteristics common to MPAs: conservation focus, level of protection, permanence of protection, constancy of protection and scale of protection. These areas of classification dictate the purpose of establishing an MPA, “what it is intended to protect, how it achieves that protection, and how it may affect local ecosystems and local human uses.”

According to NOAA, the U.S. has more than 1200 MPAs which cover 26% (3.2 million sq km) of U.S. waters. No-take MPAs cover about half of that area, or 13% (1.5 million sq km). In comparison, about 14% of land in the U.S. is protected, and U.S. waters are 1.4 times greater than the country’s land area (12 million sq km).

There are no federal mandates to set aside a specific percentage of the U.S. marine environment for protection, but some proponents of conservation believe there should be targets. In a recent statement, President Obama acknowledged that Pacific islands are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change with rising sea levels and rising temperatures. At the IUCN World Congress, Palau President Remengesau announced his desire for 30 percent of global waters to be protected (currently only 2 percent is protected). In Palau, 80 percent of its maritime territory has been designated a sanctuary to stem the effects of overfishing. With the State Department-led Our Ocean conference upcoming, this issue of global expansion of marine protection should stay on the agenda.

In part because they can be designated or classified in different ways (i.e. some areas can be more protected than others), MPAs are not controversial and receive bipartisan support. Importantly, they also require minimal effort from the American public; they do not require modification of the majority’s everyday lifestyles, but their complicity shows in a way that Americans care for the environment.

Marine protected areas will experience the same impacts from climate change as the wider ocean and coastal areas; but the intention is to create a pristine and protected laboratory to learn from these changes as well as to regenerate marine populations decimated by overfishing, IUU fishing, and bycatch. Protection from commercial and in some cases recreational fishing creates a space where coral and fish alike can take refuge. Ocean acidification continues to threaten species, especially coral reefs, and MPAs are intended to support ocean resilience. Scientists plan to monitor the fragile environment, and hope that by expanding the monument, it will also help nearby ecosystems to adapt.

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Leading at the Margins: Palau’s Role in the 2014 Pacific Island Forum

This year states are being asked to take action on sustainable energy projects “irrespective of political status.” As host of this year’s 45th Pacific Islands Forum from July 29 to August 1, leaders of the Republic of Palau are doing their part to call global attention to the plight of Pacific islands. Palau’s efforts coincide with the United Nations designation of 2014 as the ‘Year of the Small Island Developing States’. Palau’s culture of conservation and preservation has helped the state to become a leader in climate adaptation and a formidable partner in pursuing multilateral solutions to migration challenges.

Now is the time to connect conservation with development. Nonprofits, government and the private sector are working together through the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) in an attempt to build resilient and sustainable island communities. Leaders of small island states like President Tommy Remengesau of Palau seek to reverse the trend of increasing spending on defense budgets and instead spend more on conservation, and peaceful relationship-building efforts. Through GLISPA, actors are trying to find “island solutions to island challenges” because “nature forms part of [their] economy.” At a GLISPA meeting earlier this year, Palau’s Ambassador to the United States Hersey Kyota quipped that the country has an informal motto to “take enough for yourself, leave some for others.” Over time, traditional concepts of conservation have changed with technology, enabling people to store more and for companies to produce more than they need to live sustainably.

President Remengesau is expecting at least 500 people to attend the Pacific Island Forum this year, including heads of state. During his recent visit to Japan, Remengesau extended an invitation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the forum in the wake of Japan’s increasing development projects in the region. Japan continues to add to its Aid-for-Trade programs including a new agreement in June with the Kingdom of Tonga which will help the state to purchase goods from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami-damaged region. To counter China’s diplomatic and economic efforts and as part of the ‘rebalance,’ the United States has notably increased its presence at PIF meetings since Secretary Clinton’s visit to the Cook Islands in 2012; last year the US sent Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell along with a delegation also representing Departments of State, Homeland Security, Energy, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and US Pacific Command. In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key may not attend due to upcoming elections in September; but, NZ recently created a new position and appointed former Labour Member of Parliament Shane Jones as Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, to help coordinate and boost the country’s relationships, development programs and fisheries projects.

More important than the number of attendees is the commitments that can be made and followed through by larger states, and the impact a cohesive Pacific group of nations can have on swaying the international community to not only change their behaviors but help . At last year’s PIF meeting in the Solomon Islands, members signed the Majuro Declaration and made specific commitments, hoping to launch a “new wave of climate leadership.” So far it seems Australia has been the only state to move away from its commitments, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott holding the country’s plans hostage; Australia previously agreed to have 20% of its electricity generated from renewables by 2020 as well as its pursuit of emissions reductions targets. Small island states meanwhile created ambitious targets to transform their economies: Niue and the Cook Islands aim to generate 100% of their energy from renewables by 2020, Vanuatu seeks 65% by 2020, and Nauru and Solomon Islands have targets of 50% renewable energy generation by 2020 and 2015, respectively.

Emissions reductions are a more delicate political issue than changing sources of energy for both large and small states because of the economic implications for heavy polluting industries in particular and businesses in general; in the Pacific though, according to Kyota, the tension surrounding who is to blame for high emissions levels inducing climate change becomes old news when states must deal with the consequences including ocean acidification, overfishing and rising sea levels. Kiribati for example is facing certain sea level rise that will make its islands uninhabitable, and the government is investigating options for mass migration.

Palau has to evolve with “climate mitigation,” according to Ambassador Kyota, due to “things that were not caused by us.” Palau has a population of about 20,000 people, and is currently facing prospects of severe drought this year due to El Nino weather patterns. Multilateral cooperation will be critical to changing the rhetoric and discourse of climate adaptation and mitigation, and should aim to prevent free-riding. In opposition to Tony Abbott’s complaints about economic impacts of carbon pricing and other climate-related regulations, Kiribati’s President Anote Tong said “We’re not talking about the growth GDP, we’re not talking about what it means in terms of profit and losses of the large corporations, we’re talking about our survival.”  For Kiribati, “our future is already here … we will be underwater.” President Tong recently announced that Kiribati would prohibit commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which is about the size of the state of California. President Remengesau has also recently called for a total ban on commercial fishing, in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which would create a sanctuary an area the size of Ukraine. Banning export-oriented commercial fishing is likely to have a larger impact on government budgets than on local fishermen and food supplies, as fishing revenues come primarily from selling permits to overseas vessels. For Kiribati, Palau and others, the short term losses will outweigh the benefits of restoring stocks of tuna for global food security and regional conservation efforts.

Thanks to Japanese investment through the Pacific Environment Community Fund, in March this year Palau installed a new solar power generation system and salt water desalination plant which exemplifies the water-energy nexus. It will reduce reliance on fossil fuels while also providing clean, safe drinking water to residents. According to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, administrator of the fund, the governments of Samoa, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Nauru, theSolomon Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Niue, Republic of Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands and Vanuatu have to date utilized the PEC Fund “for national renewable energy and seawater desalination projects.”

Many events are happening this year specifically to coincide with the Year of the Small Island Developing States, and there are positive signs that the international community is recognizing the opportunity to act to support the efforts of island states. On June 17, US President Barack Obama proposed to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in addition to other actions at the State Department-led “Our Ocean” conference; President Obama seeks to use his presidential authority if necessary but will work to create guidelines based on stakeholder input. The US, Japan and China as the world’s largest economies must continue to follow and model the efforts of the smallest states as they transform what we think of as sustainable development. As water increases in scarcity and ocean acidification intensifies in the Pacific, Australia should reverse its mistakes on climate initiatives. The PIF meeting in July hopes to continue the groundswell of action, leading to a well-prepared UN Conference on Small Island Developing States to be held in Samoa in September. At each multilateral setting, Japan, the European Union the US have continued to display their support for sustainable development initiatives, recognizing not only the pristine environment to be saved and peoples to support, but also the potential to showcase to their own publics the power of creating more areas for conservation and the need for a shift in discourse. It will be up to all actors – including Palau as leader of the PIF – to keep one another engaged in this critical year.

Pacific Islands Forum Facing Climate Realities

“Our islands are like the jewels in a blue crown and, like the diversity of colour, shape and types of jewels, our islands embody the uniqueness of our cultures and way of life and the surrounding ocean that sustains us and connects us.” – Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna

Too much of the hype surrounding the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum meetings in Rarotonga, Cook Islands has focused on the prospective visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the struggle for influence between the US and China in the South Pacific region.  The theme for this Leader’s Forum, Large Ocean Island States – the Pacific Challenge, deserves far more attention as Pacific Island nations work on creating and maintaining a sustainable Pacific environment.  The Forum Island Countries (FICs) are at the forefront of not only the effects of climate change, but also the solutions and coping mechanisms.  Therefore the agreements forged during this week’s meetings will be a critical test of the region’s resolve to continue the momentum of achievements and to serve as an example for future regional collaboration in other parts of the world.     

Climate change has been central to the Pacific Islands Forum agendas in recent years.  In 2009 the Leaders launched a Call to Action, stating “For Pacific Island states, climate change is the great challenge of our time. It threatens not only our livelihoods and living standards, but the very viability of some of our communities. Though the role of Pacific Island States in the causes of climate change is small, the impact on them is great.”  Involving both mitigation and adaptation efforts to overcome threats caused by climate change, the Pacific Islands Forum has advocated for international assistance to support the small island states.

Launched in May 2009 at the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting (PALM) in Japan, the Pacific Environment Community Fund has proved to be a successful catalyst to facilitate sustainable development and to combat the negative effects of climate change in the region.  At the launch, Japan provided a ¥6.8billion (approximately USD$66 million) contribution to Forum Island Countries for environmental issues. According to the program, “each FIC is provided with an indicative allocation of USD$4million to support projects with a focus on the provision of solar power generation systems and sea water desalination plants or a combination of both.”  The governments of Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu have utilized the PEC Fund, with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia still working on agreements for local projects.

In the same way that sustainable, equitable trade is a factor in the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, New Zealand has emphasized sustainable development and renewable energy in particular as part of its NZ Aid Programme.  This was highlighted in last year’s Forum dialogue in Auckland.  The NZ government is providing NZ$7 million to Tokelau to install solar power systems which will provide almost 100 percent of the energy needs for the state’s over 1,400 residents.  With international assistance, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu are all undertaking projects in renewable energy.

One of the most ambitious and pioneering plans has been the Pacific Oceanscape, envisioned by His Excellency Anote Tong, President of Kiribati.  It is a framework for creating marine protected areas and a mindset “to ensure in perpetuity the health and wellbeing of our oceans and ourselves.” I highly recommend watching the Pacific Oceanscape video.  The project has been closely supported by Conservation International, including the FICs’ programs The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the Micronesia Challenge, and the Cook Islands Marine Park.  During this session of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna is expected to announce the opening of country’s Marine Park, which includes about half of its exclusive economic zone.

In thinking practically and further ahead, the Kiribati government is working on a contingency plan to move its entire population abroad.  In March this year, Kiribati President Anote Tong was in talks with the government of Fiji to purchase 5,000 acres of land as an ‘investment’, to provide a new home for its 113,000 residents.  Currently, Kiribati is about two meters above sea level.  Part of the plan for “migration with dignity” includes educating and training its population so Kiribati residents have skills desired by other Pacific states, including Australia and New Zealand.

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meetings and smaller workshops surrounding the main events are about education and dealing with the challenges and opportunities within the region.  While globalization and improved transportation has facilitated the communication and trade levels among Forum states, the effects of climate change, increasing energy costs, overfishing, coral bleaching and geopolitical challenges have appeared to harden the resolve of Forum states.  With so many positive sustainable development and energy-related projects lined up (and hopefully more to be announced this week) the outcomes of the 43rd meeting in the Cook Islands should be watched not because the US and China will be battling for their attention, but because these small islands in the Pacific are among the first to ambitiously battle for their own survival in the face of threats to their homes (by rising sea levels) and livelihoods (by overfishing and coral bleaching).