Marine Protected Areas Fund: Tailored Approaches to a Global Goal

“When we were thinking of a commitment in 2015-2016 we looked at the science,” says Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Executive Director of Marine Conservation Jason Patlis. “One of the single most effective ways to protect marine habitat is through Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Where they’re effective, you see very significant returns on biomass as well as increases in fish population and species abundance and diversity. The science is pretty compelling.”

Patlis is explaining the rationale behind WCS’ Our Ocean 2016 pledge to put $15 million into creating the WCS MPA Fund . In partnership with the Waitt Foundation and the Blue Moon Foundation, the Fund was launched to support 20 countries working on the Aichi and UN Sustainable Development Goal targets of protecting 10% of their marine and coastal waters by 2020. Ultimately, the Fund is seeking to protect a total of 1 million km2 of new MPAs.

MPAs are crucial for the resilience of our overexploited ocean. Properly managed, they offer a lifeline to key marine ecosystems, habitats and species coming under increasing pressure from a range of human activities. To ensure the long-term future of these resources, scientists are pushing for the international community to create MPAs across 30% of the global ocean surface.

The target is a global one, but Patlis underlines how MPAs can have cascading local benefits: “Where MPAs are effective, you see very significant returns on biomass, and increases in species abundance and diversity. All of that has a significant impact for surrounding areas, where there’s a big spillover effect, and for local communities, with fish stocks returning and opportunities for tourism and other forms of livelihoods that they didn’t have when they didn’t have fish or MPAs to attract people.”

Taking this community-centred approach is essential to the success of the fund. “The WCS MPA Fund marries the most important elements of a global initiative with tailored, site-based implementation,” says Patlis. “Our field staff engage with local communities to build support for – and active participation in – marine conservation from the ground up. We’re seeing tremendous success toward our goal.”

For WCS, choosing where to deploy the Fund’s resources is a question of where they can have the biggest impact, where the greatest need is, and where political opportunity and momentum are strongest.

How they deploy those resources takes further careful – and often creative – thought. Given the 20 countries where WCS is working to establish MPAs, the team has to ensure a tailored approach to building partnerships and generating stakeholder buy-in; from creating a coalition of NGOs and scientists in Argentina, to working with indigenous leaders in Papua New Guinea – and even down to scuba diving with the President of Gabon!

“We took the President of Gabon out on the water and we took him diving,” explains Patlis, “He saw first-hand for the first time what the coral reefs and biodiversity and marine resources were like in Gabon. As a result, he made a personal commitment to undertake significant protections for Gabon. This led to an announcement at the UN Ocean Conference in 2017 to protect 26% of his Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).”

WCS’s on-the-ground expertise and technical knowledge built over decades has enabled the MPA Fund to hit the ground running – and as Patlis is keen to stress, “success on a rapid timeframe and significant scale is absolutely possible when we put our minds and resources to the challenge.”

He mentions another: “Take Belize – it had been slowly evolving its fisheries and pushing on a significant set of no-take areas for a number of years. The MPA Fund enabled our team to conduct survey work in Belize’s deeper coral reef waters and support with their technical paperwork – helping to really push the government. This made it easier for the government to declare eight new no-take areas in March 2019.”

Fundamentally, Patlis believes that the philosophy that drives the MPA Fund reflects the vision of the Our Ocean community. If we work together with courage, creativity and commitment, there’s hope for the future.

“How you tackle ocean conservation is exactly the way that Our Ocean is doing it. Sustained attention, ongoing commitments and accountability are all part of the solutions. Whether it’s plastics, red zones and toxic runoff or overfishing – all of these issues can be addressed in different ways, but I think what comes out of the Our Ocean thinking is that they need to be done collaboratively, in bold ambitious ways, and they need to be done quickly.”

Photo Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society