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Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary: the global contest to establish large MPAs

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Nici Gibbs

When Prime Minister John Key announced to the United Nations General Assembly that New Zealand would establish a large no-take marine protected area (MPA) around the Kermadec Islands, he adopted the language of a competitor in a global contest to close off the largest possible areas of ocean.

John Key claimed that the 620,000 sq km sanctuary would be “one of the world’s largest and most significant” and would cover an area “twice the size of our landmass and 50 times the size of our largest national park in Fiordland” including “the world’s longest underwater volcanic arc and the second deepest ocean trench”.

Other nations are also enthusiastic contestants – the UK, for example, trumpets its plan to protect the oceans around its overseas territories as “the biggest conservation commitment by any government ever, pledging to protect an area of ocean three-and-a-half times the size of Britain”.

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is one of at least 21 ‘large MPAs’ or MPA networks recently proposed or established in the world’s oceans. What’s driving the contest?

The Kermadec Sanctuary was heavily promoted by US-based Pew Charitable Trusts, reflecting the global trend of wealthy US and UK-based environmental NGOs campaigning to establish large MPAs in other countries.

At the same time, NGOs are advocating for the protection of 30 per cent of global ocean habitats from all extractive activities (the current target is 10 per cent). With targets of this magnitude, it’s not surprising that many governments are readily persuaded that a larger MPA is a better MPA.

It’s also not surprising that – as illustrated by Pew with the Kermadec islands – small islands with large Exclusive Economic Zones are frequently targeted as candidate sites for large MPAs. Distant northern hemisphere nations such as the United Kingdom, the United States and France are busy establishing large MPAs around their remote ocean territories and claiming these areas as their national contribution to global marine protection, while leaving their own coasts available for utilisation.

The focus on remote islands also means that MPAs are established not in areas where they might be needed to manage threats to marine biodiversity – but in areas like the Kermadecs that are relatively pristine and where biodiversity is not threatened.

Given these pressures, Pacific states such as New Zealand are particularly vulnerable to MPA campaigns. In a global context the Pacific is grossly over-represented in large MPAs – of the established MPAs, 97 per cent by area are located in the Pacific Ocean.

With a few exceptions, motivations for establishing large MPAs seldom relate to protecting representative or special areas of marine biodiversity (although biodiversity protection may be a side-benefit). Instead, MPAs are often adopted as a substitute for effective fisheries management – reflecting the failure of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations to agree on management measures and the lack of domestic fisheries enforcement capacity in small island nations.

It’s no coincidence that islands within large MPAs are often of strategic military importance to the designating government. It serves the interests of these governments to establish large areas of ocean in which vessel traffic can be constrained and closely monitored.

Johnston Atoll, a former US military air base is also the site of the world’s largest MPA. 

Examples include Johnston and Wake Atolls (the two largest no-take MPAs in the world) which are administered by US defence agencies, Ascension Island which hosts a mid-Atlantic airfield shared by UK and US forces, and the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

The UK-designated MPA surrounding the Chagos Islands was overturned by a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLO) arbitral tribunal in 2015, but not before leaked cables between UK and US officials revealed that the MPA was a ploy to prevent the return of the Islands’ original inhabitants who were displaced in the 1960s to make way for a US military base.

Who’s winning? When announcing the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, John Key may not have realised that New Zealand was already leading the pack. The largest established MPA networks in the world are New Zealand’s Benthic Protection Area (BPA) network (1,718,765 sq km) and the US’s Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (1,269,065 sq km).

If the Kermadec Sanctuary is established as proposed, it will be the single largest MPA as well as the largest ‘no-take’ MPA in the world. However, it won’t increase New Zealand’s contribution to global MPA targets as the Sanctuary, in its entirety, overlies an area of ocean already protected by the BPA network.

Unfortunately for the planet’s oceans, the competition to establish the world’s largest MPA has little to do with marine biodiversity protection. Effective marine protection requires clear biodiversity protection objectives and targeted management of the real threats to biodiversity – attributes that are cheerfully discarded when the global contest is framed around the simplistic measure of the size of MPAs.

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