Marine reserves – areas where fishing, dredging, mining, and sometimes even boating are banned – are one of the best strategies for the recovery of our overstressed oceans. Scientific evidence shows that marine reserves, which oceanographer Sylvia Earle calls “hope spots,” allow crippled populations of fish and other marine life to recover in the absence of human pressures, mainly fishing. Although at least 61 countries – ranging from small islands to large nations – have set up more than 400 “no take” reserves, the reserves add up to less than 0.1 percent of the oceans. Most of these reserves originally were created small, as parts of existing national parks or to protect specific areas like breeding grounds against the ravages of overfishing. Conservationists are now pushing for bigger “hope spots” across the world.
Only about 3 percent of US territorial waters – some 147,480 square miles – are protected as marine reserves, and 95 percent of that area is contained in a single reserve, the Papahāanaumokuākea Marine National Monument created by President George W. Bush in 2006. The extensive coral reefs found there are home to more than 7,000 marine species, one-quarter of which are found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago.
The area along around Devon’s three-mile-long Lundy Island, a place known for its lobsters, was designated as the first marine reserve in the UK in 2003. From 2003 to 2007, scientists monitored lobsters inside the reserve and in surrounding fished areas and detected significant increases in size and number of lobsters in the reserve. The newly robust lobster population suggests that even a small reserve can have signficant benefits.
Now more than 20-years-old, the Apo and Sumilon marine reserves in the Philippines have provided an unparalleled, long-term understanding of biological changes in marine reserves. They have helped researchers prove that reserves can lead to increases in abundance and size of marine biomass, and can benefit adjacent fisheries. The two reserves have also provided economic benefits to local communities by increasing tourism.
In the 1990s, Kenya began to enforce rules that prohibited fishing in the Kisite Marine National Park, an area of coral reefs along its southern coast. Biologists studied biota at the reserve and also at Mtang’ata Collaborative Management Area, a marine protected area that allows restricted fishing, across the border in Tanzania. They found that while the latter provided some protection to fished stocks, the marine reserve had higher fish diversity and produced greater ecological benefits.
The country pioneered marine protection with the 1975 creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In 2004, the Australian government strengthened the park’s protections by setting aside 33 percent of the park as a no-take marine reserve. In 2007, the country added another 87,260 square miles of its coastline to its collection of marine reserves.
—Sources: IUCN, National Geographic, World Commission on Protected Areas, Yale 360