Mobile Marine Protected Areas Proposed for UNCLOS

Credit: J Maxwell
Humpback Whale, Credit: J Maxwell

Published Jan 21, 2020 6:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

World leaders are currently updating the laws for international waters, and a group of scientists have proposed that they should include measures that allow protected zones to shift as species move under climate change.

The scientists are advocating that the United Nations include mobile marine protected areas in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) now being updated since its last signing in 1982. The Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is set to adopt a final treaty text that secures an agreement for a U.N. high seas conservation treaty which provides a mechanism for establishing marine protected areas and reserves. The IGC-4 meeting takes place in New York from March 23 to April 3.

"Animals obviously don't stay in one place; a lot of them use very large areas of the ocean, and those areas can move in time and space," said Sara Maxwell, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Bothell who studies migratory marine animals. "As climate change happens, if we make boundaries that are static in place and time, chances are that the animals we are trying to protect will be gone from those places."

Former President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and actor Leonardo DiCaprio are well-known proponents of protecting large regions of the ocean environment in marine protected areas. But Maxwell says they aren't enough to conserve highly mobile species, like sea turtles, whales, sharks and seabirds that can travel across entire oceans in search of food and breeding grounds.

Several nations now use dynamic management strategies within the 200 nautical miles from shore that they fish exclusively, Maxwell said. A few countries also use dynamic management strategies farther from shore, for boats registered to their countries.

The TurtleWatch program, for instance, asks U.S. fishing boats to voluntarily avoid waters north of Hawaii at the surface temperatures preferred by loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, to reduce the unintended capture of the endangered animal. In Australia, longline fishing boats forego fishing in international waters when and where models predict the presence of the southern bluefin tuna, a commercially valuable and endangered species that's managed through a quota system.

"We hope the language in the United Nations treaty could be changed to explicitly include mobile marine protected areas and other dynamic management tools, so that those become options to protect the largest parts of the ocean going forward," Maxwell said.

Maxwell is lead author of a new study Mobile Protected Areas for Biodiversity on the High Seas published in Science. Co-authors are Kristina Gjerde, senior high seas advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Marine and Polar Programme; Melinda Conners, a research scientist at Stony Brook University and former UW Bothell postdoctoral researcher; and Larry Crowder at Stanford University. In addition to support from their home institutions, the authors received funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gallifrey Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.