National parks and marine protected areas: a complete waste of space?

Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park in Australia

When I think of nature reserves and marine protected areas many images are conjured up in my mind, vast areas of idyllic paradise full of stunning natural landforms carved over centuries. Areas brimming with fauna and flora in every last crevice, with the unexpected always to be found in nature’s great diversity, yet barely ever the trace of human existence. Not once do I think of marine protected areas more populated by shipping giants than bottlenose dolphins. Well, as I found out recently in this assumption I have indeed been very wrong, as I am now forced to question myself, have I been naïve to think that these supposed titles, laws and legislations make much if any difference at all?

To be a national park an area must of course have something important to preserve, an ecosystem, land formation or a beautiful historic monument. But the critical question is are all acts of legislation put in place by governments actually followed through? Is a label alone enough to guarantee protection in today’s world or does far more need to be done?

Australia certainly seems to have got it right. With 13% of the land protected found within 9300 different national parks vast areas of land are preserved. In 2008 an investment of 180 million was put into the reserve system and has since been declared as “one of the biggest conservation success stories of the Rudd and Gillard governments” by WWF-Australia. Investment in these biodiversity hotspots such as southwest Australia makes important steps towards maintaining species; in particular these initiatives have helped protect the bridled nailtail wallaby, the northern wombat and many others. Such a triumph this project has been that there has been much demand for even more funding to expand the project.

Such success stories are not always the case however; one striking example where the follow through action is clearly lacking is the Pelagos sanctuary in the Ligurian sea. France, Italy and the Principality of Monaco signed an agreement in 1999 declaring 90,000 km2 of the Ligurian sea a marine protected area, making it the first in existence in international waters. The sanctuary is home to many species including striped dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, fin whales and sperm whales.

I spent a month onboard a research vessel following marine life in this sanctuary and one of the clearest messages I went home with was that in reality this was no sanctuary at all. It was not these magnificent mammals that ruled the waters but instead man made monstrosities pumping the oceans with pollutants. If anything to call it a sanctuary was a mockery of the word, if this is what we want a sanctuary to be our standards are clearly warped. Not only did I see significantly more massive vessels than I did dolphins and whales, but even the researchers themselves referred to the area as a ‘shipping sanctuary’. On further research it became clear that this sanctuary only existed ‘on paper’. This area has been supposedly protected for over 10 years, yet no real measures have taken place and I can’t help thinking does this area deserve this title when it seems to me just a way of making our actions look greater than they are? Or am I being unrealistic, is 10 years too little time to bring these intentions to actions? It is estimated we lose 0.01- 0.1% of species a year, this may not seem huge but when you consider the lower estimate of 2 million species that are in existence this means we could be losing 200–2000 species a year. To consider the upper estimate of 100 million species that could exist the numbers become even more horrifying. When we loose anywhere between 200 to 100,000 species each year, I cant help thinking that these are 10 years of doing nothing that we can’t afford to waste.

The Pelagos sanctuary is yet to be successful providing damning evidence that some of these titles do nothing to help our ecosystems, however it may be that at the moment there is a bias towards protecting land ecosystems where we have much more success. It seems standards differ between the resources and effort put into marine protected areas than those for land reserves. The main difficulty in protecting the oceans is the need for so many countries to join together in a collaborative effort with no clear borders in the sea. Another problem is the lack of barriers to migration in the ocean; it is certainly difficult to protect a migratory species, a problem faced on land too. To battle this problem corridor projects are hugely needed to protect migratory species, but this again requires a collaborative effort.

As Nick Boles argues we should start building on green belt land, another blow to protecting our environment, should we just give up, accept that some of the measures we have been taking are not enough and forget the concept of these protected areas all together? In my opinion this would be a fatal mistake. Surely a measure to protect, however ineffective, is better than to have no measure in place at all. At the very least the intention alone is better than nothing at all, even if we are yet to see the results? Even if 99% of all protected areas prove to fail, that 1% that succeed will still provide hope in a much needed area, so to ditch these titles would be to ditch all hope.

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