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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Entering uncharted waters – ocean conservation key to the future

To glimpse into the future in all its complexity, challenge and opportunity, we need only to explore the state of the world’s coasts, whose fate will be determined by the actions we take over the coming generation.

Nearly two billion people live near the coast, with many of these areas bearing the highest population growth rates on earth. Over 20 million people rely on so-called ‘small-scale’ fisheries for jobs, mostly in coastal seas, and hundreds of millions of people also depend on the coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses and lagoons around our tropical shores.


Yet these invaluable ecosystems, which underpin the food security and livelihoods of many of our planet’s most vulnerable populations, are in steep decline. As we strive to steer the planet towards a sustainable future, the coast – particularly in tropical developing coastal states – is at the forefront of the pernicious impacts of climate change; where the loss of globally important biodiversity and subsequent erosion of human wellbeing is escalating rapidly.

Time is not on our side. We have years not decades to quell the perfect storm now brewing in our seas, and the global conservation movement has much work still to do to identify truly scalable and funded solutions that stand a hope of driving the systems change needed to safeguard these places and the people that depend on them.

Drawing on the wisdom of the past is a good place to start. For centuries and millennia, people living near the sea have witnessed the effects of over-extraction of their waters, particularly of fish, and there is much evidence of communities taking practical strides to protect areas in order to provide for tomorrow.

Seemingly simple local concepts can inspire and drive restoration of the ocean at scale, reviving marine health and productivity of our seas, from the tropics to the poles, and from the shallows out to the high seas. The inclusion of ocean conservation as a pillar of the Sustainable Development Goals – reiterated by world leaders at the first ever UN ocean conference in New York this year-  shows that the tide is turning.

At the International Marine Protected Areas Congress convenes in Chile this month, policy-makers and civil society must focus on this year’s instructive and inspiring theme: bringing the people and the ocean together.

It is becoming ever clearer that protecting areas where fish breed and grow, and conserving the essential building blocks and pathways of marine ecosystems can forge a path to a brighter future for millions of people, helping secure food supplies and improve livelihoods and wellbeing.

In Madagascar, one of the poorest countries on earth, a growing number of coastal communities have declared locally managed marine areas using customary laws to rebuild local fisheries and protect threatened marine biodiversity. This approach has proven to be a cost-effective, scalable and socially acceptable solution to the challenges facing Madagascar’s otherwise open access marine resources.

It is safeguarding food security, tackling coastal poverty, and strengthening resilience to climate change and in the space of just a decade, this network of locally managed marine areas has reached more than 150 sites covering over 14% of the island’s inshore seabed, reaching over 250,000 people.

Thousands of nautical miles away, the people of Koon island, Indonesia have long been applying traditional wisdom in managing their fishing resources. “NGAM” or open/closed access are widespread conservation measures that local and Indigenous communities have adapted to their social and environmental conditions over time. By protecting spawning areas, including through no-take zones, many more fish are now being caught in surrounding waters and with far less effort than before.

The fish caught by local people around the conservation zones at Koon have found a market niche in Hong Kong and Singapore. The boat-based cruising tourism industry – so deeply dependent on the health of this marine area – is also part of this holistic approach to conservation, with tourism operators now paying a fee to communities for visiting the site.

These are just two of countless local experiences that illustrate what can be achieved when communities are empowered to manage the resources that they depend on. In Chile, marine managers have long seen the value of fostering community participation in marine protected area planning and management, as demonstrated by the Pitipalena conservation area.

We need to take decisive steps to magnify these efforts; exchanging experiences across countries, markets and languages, to empower communities to scale up those models that have delivered positive outcomes for people and nature. Recognition of the strong return on investment for these approaches will also boost their on-water performance.

The interface of traditional knowledge, development practice, and the best conservation science demonstrates that conservation can deliver real hope on the ground, where it counts most.

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