Marine parks: big or small? Both, says oceans expert

A starfish, pictured above on a coral reef in Bali, Indonesia. (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

Climate change is threatening to wipe out coral reefs within our lifetime. One solution is the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), but what should MPAs look like, and how large should they be?

That question was raised in a provocative op-ed published recently in the New York Times that argued against large-scale MPAs in favor of smaller MPAs that protect threatened coastlines and single reefs.

In a recent piece for News Deeply published today, Conservation International senior vice president ‘Aulani Wilhelm says that argument needlessly draws a line between two parts of the same solution.

“It’s a false choice — the reality is that we need both,” Wilhelm writes. “For too long, ocean conservation has been focused on drawing lines around the very smallest quanta of an ocean ecosystem: a single reef, a bay, a politically significant viewshed, but omitting critical surrounding areas that affect marine life within the MPA to be effective.”

Wilhelm argues that nature knows no boundaries and is constantly shifting. MPAs, therefore, need to be big enough to account for that.

“Compared with smaller areas, large-scale MPAs can provide more holistic protection — protecting entire ecosystems and providing a viable approach to protecting the high seas.” And, as Wilhelm points out, establishing large-scale MPAs doesn’t preclude protecting smaller areas: “They are a necessary complement.”

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A combination of warming oceans, pollution and acidification is threatening reefs around the world. These reefs are home to vital marine ecosystems and provide benefits to human life including food, jobs and protection from storms.

“If the world’s coral reefs are to survive, we have to change the way we treat oceans and respond to the effects of climate change everywhere,” Wilhelm writes. “To provide the best possible hedge against the confluence of stressors that are impacting reefs and the oceans overall, we need to be precautionary and protect as much as we can, as quickly as we can.”

Read the full piece here.

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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