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Safeguarding the seas - the complexity of enforcing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) towards the 30x30 target

A recent study published in Conservation Letters on the lack of adequate ocean protection in terms of the quality versus quantity of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) found that only a third of all MPAs worldwide are actually protected. In this article, we will talk about the implications of these findings in the context of the 30x30 Kunming-Montreal targets and what is currently being done and needed.

What is the 30x30 target? 

First, let’s get some basics down. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was the outcome from the COP15 on Biological Diversity in 2020 and aims to halt and reverse nature loss. Consisting of 23 global targets to be achieved by 2030 and beyond, it set explicit numbers to roll up our sleeves towards. Amongst these, Targets 2 and 3 of the framework became one of the most notable commitments made given their ambition and catchy 30x30 acronym by aiming to conserve 30% of land, sea, and inland water, and restore 30% of degraded ecosystems. 

Target 2 of the GBF (UN Biodiversity)

Target 3 of the GBF (UN Biodiversity)


What is the actual progress towards the 30x30 target in terms of ocean protection?

While international agreements such as the 30x30 target are remarkable, it is important to keep track of progress and monitor the integrity of the measures taken, as highlighted by the study. In February 2023, 18,000 MPAs were officially recognised in the world, equating to 8.2% of the oceans.


By analysing the 100 largest MPAs (representing nearly 90% of all MPAs and 7.3% of global oceans), the study found that only one third of these MPAs are actually highly or fully protected, which equates to 2.6% of the global ocean surface. Even more problematic, the study advances that another third of these protected areas amounting to 2.7% of the total oceans are considered to be the location for highly harmful activities toward biodiversity, such as intensive fishing and extractive activities (e.g. deep sea mining). The remaining third (approximately 2% of oceans) is estimated to be lacking regulation and management, meaning they benefit from alarmingly low protection.


Level of protection of MPAs (The MPA Guide)


These numbers are summarised in the table below.


Percentage of global oceans

Percentage of 100 largest MPAs

Highly or fully protected

2.6%

35.7%

Incompatible with conservation

2.7%

36.9%

Low protection, lacking regulation and management

2%

27.4%

TOTAL

7.3%

100%

As 2030 is now 6 years away, reaching the 30x30 target seems more intricate than ever as 27.4% out of the 30% targeted oceans remain unprotected (see table below). Moreover, the largest 100 MPAs are often disproportionately placed in highly remote areas and overseas territories, which means that large population clusters with damaged ecosystems are under-protected while some unthreatened areas are protected, failing to reap conservation co-benefits. The difference in sizes, locations, and allowed extent of activities also makes it intricate to truly assess the net benefits and efficiency of an MPA’s establishment. 

Distribution of MPAs (Protected Planet)


Altogether, these constatations create the perfect environment for non-compliance, often answered by fragmentary, reactive efforts. It, therefore, becomes crucial to re-think current tracking methods to assess quality over quantity of MPAs. 

30x30 target

Estimated oceans protected prior to study

Actual oceans protected upon verification from study

Remaining progress needed toward target

30%

8.2%

2.6%

27.4%

What is being done and what is needed? 


Need for improved jurisdiction and governance

61% of the global ocean area (95% of its volume) is considered an area beyond national jurisdiction (i.e. high seas), the remaining 39% consisting of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ or national waters). While 18.3% of national waters are supposedly protected by the officially reported 18,000 MPAs, only 1.44% of high seas are covered even though it is home to unique species and ecosystems key to marine biodiversity. In 2023, the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Agreement championed by the BBNJ High-Ambition Coalition, also known as the “Treaty of the High Seas”, was signed by nearly 70 countries. The Agreement, developed within the UNCLOS framework, is an international agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. By mandating capacity-building, environmental impact assessments, and knowledge transfer, it hopes to achieve a more holistic management of high seas activities to advance the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological resources. Next to targeted national policies to enforce protection, these international agreements are key to foster evidence-based policies.


Need for appropriate conservation finance and framing nature as an asset

When signing the GBF, the 200 signatory countries had pledged to mobilise at least $200bn per year from public and private sources. Nevertheless, only an estimated $121bn per year is currently being invested in conservation worldwide. This comes at a time where the rate of extinction is now 100 to 1000 times faster than previously expected. Increased financing could contribute to the development of advanced technology (e.g. satellites, drones) to defend existing MPAs and expose illegal practices, such as what has been deployed in the UK by OceanMind and Oceana in quantifying bottom-towed fishing activity in benthic MPAs. The role of conservation finance will also be key in terms of framing the economic, social, and environmental benefits that can only be reaped when the ocean’s resilience to climate change and its capacity to provide resources and services necessary for human survival are not compromised by human threats to marine life and biodiversity. Given that the upcoming COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan is nicknamed the "Finance COP", this framing will be key to catalyse additional funds.


Looking beyond…

Beyond the highlighted complexity of enforcing the 30x30 target for oceans, it is important not to forget the bigger picture of how these targets came about in the first place. There is a continuous need to challenge and improve these targets towards increased ambition and social (e.g. indigenous rights) and ecological soundness


Reading club

If this article sparked your interest in the topic of ocean governance and conservation and you would like to take it further, I highly recommend the following readings:


  • The book The Blue Commons (penguin.co.uk) from Guy Standing is a great read that I would recommend to anyone looking into understanding the origins of the current governance system of the oceans and deeply explores the flaws, loopholes, and corporate greed within.

  • This guide from the WWF, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, and The Nature Conservancy, supported by funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), contains more information on how to achieve an inclusive, equitable, and effective implementation of the Target 3 of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

  • This map from the Global Fishing Watch, Marine Conservation Society, Seas at Risk, & Oceana allows you to visualize where bottom trawling is damaging Europe’s protected waters. 

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