Many governing bodies around the world have responded to the ocean crisis by pledging to protect swaths of ocean within their territories. To see how these commitments added up, my colleagues and I recently evaluated ocean conservation commitments announced from 2014 through 2019 at the yearly Our Ocean Conferences — high-level international meetings initiated by the U.S. State Department. (More recent meetings were canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
A number of countries have made ambitious commitments. At the Our Ocean Conferences from 2014 through 2019, 62 countries pledged to protect areas of their ocean. Fourteen nations, including the Seychelles and Chile, committed to protect more than 38,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) within their waters.
Unfortunately, even if all of these commitments are fully implemented, they will protect only 4% of the world’s ocean. Adding in all other protected areas and outstanding commitments made in other forums raises that figure to 8.9%.
The number is likely to rise as additional countries join in. For example, on May 30 the South Pacific island nation of Niue pledged to protect 100% of its national waters. They cover 122,000 square miles — an area roughly the size of Vietnam.
Most recently, the Biden administration proposed on June 8 to designate Hudson Canyon, which lies southeast of New York City in the Atlantic and is one of the largest underwater canyons in the world, as a national marine sanctuary. The canyon provides habitat for sperm whales, sea turtles, deep-sea corals and other sensitive species.
Adding urgency to this effort, negotiations at the United Nations continue around a proposed target to protect at least 30% of Earth’s land and sea areas by 2030. More than 90 countries, including the U.S., have endorsed this goal.
In many protected areas, damaging activities are permitted. For example, the Habitat Protection Zones of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park allow multiple types of fishing.
I served on an international team that published a broad framework for planning and assessing marine protected areas in 2021. Our key message was that effectively conserving ocean habitats and marine life will require working together with local communities and governments to create more marine protected areas and set tighter curbs on destructive activities.