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Protecting Half of the World’s Oceans Could Deliver Massive Global Gains

Protecting 45% of the world’s oceans would deliver a “triple win” of increased biodiversity, restored fisheries, and a greater capacity to sequester carbon, says a new report just published in the journal Nature.

“The ocean is the kind of unwaveringly supportive friend who tolerates our toxicity and shields us from the worst consequences of our actions,” writes The Washington Post. But, it adds, it is also “the friend people have taken for granted for far too long” by choosing rapacious extraction of all its bounties (especially fish) rather than demonstrating respect, gratitude, and love.

Now, an international and interdisciplinary study says it doesn’t have to continue this way.

More than two dozen marine experts working for the past three years have determined that formally protecting just under half of all ocean regions would substantially improve biodiversity, the Post reports. Critical spillover effects would include a correspondingly healthier fisheries industry, and greater capacity for carbon sequestration. 

The research group, which included Enric Sala, explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, generated this hope-filled conclusion after it “carved the ocean up into 50-kilometre-by-50-kilometre squares, then evaluated each plot for the threats it faced, the number of species it contained, and the uniqueness of those creatures, as well as the abundance of any of the 1,300 most economically important fish.”

In the process, they built a landmark map of the carbon stored across the entire sea floor, and “developed a model that could calculate a conservation strategy that optimized for all three benefits—biodiversity, fisheries, and carbon sequestration—where establishing a robust marine protected area could deliver a ‘triple win’.” They also found that marine sediment “stores twice as much carbon as terrestrial soil.”

Many of the areas most likely to deliver these wins are within about 235 miles of the coastline, “in the ‘exclusive economic zones’ where nations have jurisdiction over natural resources.” They include parts of the China Sea and the Adriatic Ocean, as well as “species-rich coral reefs, unique kelp forests, and carbon-rich wetlands.”

Although they fall outside any such zone, the nutrient-rich seas that surround Antarctica were also flagged as a priority region for protection. 

The new study lands ahead of a United Nations biodiversity conference due to be held this year in Kunming, China—a meeting as important as the 2015 United Nations climate conference in Paris, Sala told the Post.

Citing UN data, the Post writes that “just 7.65% of the ocean is currently in a marine protected area,” or less than 3% with protections that have any real teeth.  

While many countries, the U.S. included, have pledged to protect 30% of their waters (and land) by 2030, Sala said that would be the minimum required. Activists like Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, founder and executive director of ocean conservation group Azul, are hoping the Nature study will push biodiversity conference attendees to greater efforts.

Recalling the damage wrought by the “false narrative of conservation versus the economy,” Gutiérrez-Graudiņš told the Post the new study “shows you can have a win-win.” She added that, “if you’re actually doing this as a long-term enterprise, it’s in your best interest that this resource stays out there.”