1st MPA Agencies of the World United Summit

San Francisco, California

February 13-16

There is a devoted battalion of government officials working to establish, enforce, and monitor marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world. For the past three days I was in San Francisco at the MPA Agencies of the World United Summit. This gathering, sponsored by the Waitt Foundation, was the first of its kind, and perhaps long overdue. Currently, only a fraction of 1% of the ocean is fully-protected, no-fishing zones.

Government officials and top NGO and Foundation representatives from around the world met in an intimate setting (there were only ~40 attendees) to share candid stories, forge collaborations, and consider how to increase the effectiveness and area of MPAs. Australia, Bahamas, Canada, Chile, Dominican Republic, France, Italy, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Palau, Philippines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tanzania, United Kingdom, and United States were represented, as were Rare, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), WWF, NRDC, National Geographic, Pew Environmental Group, MacGillivray Freeman Films/One World One Ocean, OneReef, Packard Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and Campbell Foundation.

Of particular note:

  • Important to include fishing benefits in MPA design: In order to gain community support, MPAs should be not just a conservation tool, but also a fishing enhancement tool.
  • More and better communication needed: There is a great need for better communication about the value of MPAs and why more of them are needed – this should include benefits to fishing (per above) and maritime heritage (e.g. shipwrecks). A common language is needed for talking about MPAs, even if it’s just a few consistent words, phrases or points.
  • OneReef’s innovative conservation approach: This is the new kid on the block – keep an eye on them. They are using conservation agreements as a tool to help communities in Micronesia and other places in the Indo-Pacific monetize their coral reef resources so they can afford conservation and take a longer-term perspective about the use of their ocean resources.
  • TNC in Jamaica: The health of Jamaica’s reefs plummeted in the 1970s due to the island’s large population and lack of management. They are now among the most degraded in the Caribbean, and it seems most of the conservation community gave up on restoration efforts in Jamaica long ago. My take is that if you can improve Jamaica’s reefs, you can improve any reefs. It’s the ultimate challenge. TNC is taking that challenge, working with fishermen on Pedro Bank. The conservationist in me, and the Jamaican half of me (my father was born and raised in Kingston) are keen to see TNC succeed.
  • The importance of “why?”: One of the speakers showed part of a TED talk by Simon Sinek conveying the message that success is achieved by starting communication with “why,” then moving on to “how,” and last to “what.” The opposite approach is the norm, but “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” For MPAs, this seems to translate to starting with the community, starting with why MPAs are an opportunity, not a hindrance.
  • Catch-22 of proving MPA effectiveness: While there is ample scientific support for the benefits of MPAs, and they make intuitive sense (i.e., kill fewer fish and there will be more of them), local evidence is important for building community support. However, there can’t be local evidence until there’s a local MPA. Further, it’s impossible to quantify MPA benefits if they aren’t enforced and monitored (which there is often little funding for). Perhaps this is where OneReef’s conservation agreements can come in?
  • South Africa – Diamonds vs. MPAs: Apparently DeBeers (yes, of diamond fame) has long-term leases on much of the coastal area (including underwater) of western of South Africa, and is thwarting the establishment of MPAs there. Hmm…
  • Launch of MPAtlas.org: A Waitt Foundation Funded project, “the marine protected areas atlas will be an interactive online compilation of key information on the world’s MPAs…. The project will compile and synthesize information to help website users understand the level of protection, biodiversity, biomass, size and management authorities of MPAs.” Hopefully this group of Summit attendees will contribute comments and data hone this tool so that it is as useful and possible for them and others.
  • One World One Ocean cameo?: Greg and Barbara MacGillivray, whose son Shaun I met at Summit Series Basecamp, and whose team beautifully documents the ocean in order to inspire conservation, seem to want me on film. Incredibly flattering, but (Eek!) also scary.

Unfortunately, I had to leave early and am on a plane now instead of in the room listening to what I hope is a productive discussion and debate about how this inchoate group can become a force for protecting, restoring, and sustaining the ocean. It was an eye-opening gathering,

I am honored to call these people, who grapple daily with all the messy complexities of implementing conservation, my colleagues.