25 January 2017 - For decades, marine conservation has lagged behind efforts to protect our terrestrial treasures like the Grand Canyon. Clearly, the balance is shifting, as world leaders increasingly recognize the economic and ecological value of the ocean. Last year saw President Obama quadruple the size of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Northwest Hawaii, a place inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 2010 for both its cultural and natural global importance. This expansion made Papahānaumokuākea the largest protected area on the planet. Just two months later, leaders from 24 countries and the European Union came together to protect the Ross Sea in Antarctica, the world’s largest marine reserve.
Last year also saw some important advances in the decades-long effort to protect the High Seas—the deep ocean that lies beyond national boundaries and covers half the planet. UNESCO laid out for the first time a path forward for World Heritage protection of the High Seas, and identified five sites of potential outstanding universal value. At the same time, the UN General Assembly has been working on a new instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to promote conservation and sustainable use in the High Seas.
Even as we are breaking new ground in the conservation of exceptional places, we must also step up management efforts. The creation of new protected areas often generates major headlines, but that is only the beginning of the generations-long process to steward special places. The 1972 World Heritage Convention recognizes that effective conservation requires collective action. Our model of ongoing oversight and support has logged some important successes. For example, Aldabra Atoll has brought its green turtles back from the brink of extinction. Today, the site hosts one of the world’s biggest populations. Half a world away in Glacier Bay, a competitive bidding system for cruise ship park entries has brought air and water pollution to zero while simultaneously generating funds for management and research. Glacier Bay’s successes are now inspiring other parks to forge similar private-public partnerships. There are many such stories across the world’s marine protected areas, where good management is rebuilding sustainable fisheries, creating jobs, and supporting thriving communities. World Heritage marine sites are not only important from an ecological point of view, they also bring secure jobs and income to people and local communities all around the world. But having toured and inspected many of the world’s most iconic ocean places over the past six years, it is clear that the work of marine management is growing increasingly daunting.