U.N. Study: Biodiversity Loss Unstoppable With Protected Areas

by Dan Bacher

While some governments and environmental NGOs have pushed controversial “marine protected areas” in the U.S. and throughout the world as the solution to protecting the ocean, a July 28 United Nations study said continued reliance on a strategy of setting aside land and maritime territories as “protected areas” is insufficient to stem global biodiversity loss.

The assessment offers a challenge to the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative in California, a privately funded program that creates so-called marine protected areas that fail to protect California marine waters from oil spills and drilling, wave and wind energy projects, water pollution, habitat destruction, military testing and all other human impacts upon the ocean other than fishing and gathering.


Despite impressively rapid growth of protected land and marine areas worldwide – today totalling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometers of land and 2 million square kilometers of oceans – “biodiversity is in steep decline,” according to a comprehensive assessment published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

“Expected scenarios of human population growth and consumption levels indicate that cumulative human demands will impose an unsustainable toll on the Earth’s ecological resources and services accelerating the rate at which biodiversity is being loss,” stated a news release from the United Nations University.

The scientists say current and future human requirements will also “exacerbate the challenge of effectively implementing protected areas while suggesting that effective biodiversity conservation requires new approaches that address underlying causes of biodiversity loss – including the growth of both human population and resource consumption.”

“Biodiversity is humanity’s life-support system, delivering everything from food, to clean water and air, to recreation and tourism, to novel chemicals that drive our advanced civilization,” says lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Yet there is an increasingly well-documented global trend in biodiversity loss, triggered by a host of human activities.”

“Ongoing biodiversity loss and its consequences for humanity’s welfare are of great concern and have prompted strong calls for expanding the use of protected areas as a remedy,” says fellow author Peter F. Sale, Assistant Director of the United Nations University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health. “While many protected areas have helped preserve some species at local scales, promotion of this strategy as a global solution to biodiversity loss, and the advocacy of protection for specific proportions of habitats, have occurred without adequate assessment of their potential effectiveness in achieving the goal.”Drs. Mora and Sale warn that long-term failure of the “protected areas” strategy could “erode public and political support for biodiversity conservation and that the disproportionate allocation of available resources and human capital into this strategy precludes the development of more effective approaches.”

The authors based their study on existing literature and global data on human threats and biodiversity loss. “Protected areas are very useful conservation tools, but unfortunately, the steep continuing rate of biodiversity loss signals the need to reassess our heavy reliance on this strategy,” stated Dr. Sale.

The five limitations of reliance on protected areas

The study says continuing heavy reliance on the protected areas strategy has five key technical and practical limitations. The first of these limitations is that “protected areas only ameliorate certain human threats.”

“Biodiversity loss is triggered by a host of human stressors including habitat loss, overexploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive species,” according to the study. “Yet protected areas are useful primarily against overexploitation and habitat loss. Since the remaining stressors are just as deleterious, biodiversity can be expected to continue declining as it has done until now. The study shows that approximately 83% of protected areas on the sea and 95% of protected areas on land are located in areas with continuing high impact from multiple human stressors.”

This conclusion by the scientists echoes one of the key criticisms of California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative – the “marine protected areas” created by this widely-contested process don’t comprehensively protect the ocean from the main threats to the ocean and marine life in California. These threats include massive water diversions out of the Bay-Delta Estuary, water pollution, oil spills and drilling, wave and wind energy projects, military testing, habitat destruction and all other human impacts other than sustainable fishing and gathering.

Ironically, even before the imposition of these largely redundant ocean closures that are now being contested by coalition of fishing organizations in court, California marine and anadromous fisheries had the strictest recreational and commercial fishing regulations on the entire planet. MLPA advocates refuse to acknowledge the existence of one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, the Rockfish Conservation Area, that encompass the entire continental shelf of California from the Oregon border to the Mexican border!

A second limitation cited in the study is “underfunding.” “Global expenditures on protected areas today are estimated at US $6 billion per year and many areas are insufficiently funded for effective management,” the assessment notes.

“Effectively managing existing protected areas requires an estimated $24 billion per year – four times current expenditure. Despite strong advocacy for protected areas, budget growth has been slow and it seems unlikely that it will be possible to raise funding appropriate for effective management as well as for creation of the additional protected areas as is advocated,” according to the report.

Again, the assessment echoes the criticism by fishermen, Tribes and environmentalists that there is not sufficient funding for enforcement of new marine protected areas (MPAs) under the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative. The game wardens refer to these new MPAs as “marine poaching areas,” since they will only spread a force of wardens already unable to effectively monitor existing reserves even thinner. In fact, Jerry Karnow, the president of the California Fish and Game Wardens Association, has repeatedly asked the California Fish and Game Commission to not create new marine protected areas unless sufficient funding is provided to hire new wardens.

The three other limitations pinpointed by the scientists are:

• the expected growth in protected area coverage is too slow

• the size and connectivity of protected areas are inadequate

• conflicts with human development.

“Humanity’s footprint on Earth is ever expanding in efforts to meet basic needs like housing and food,” the scientists stated. “If it did prove possible to place the recommended 30% of world habitats under protection, intense conflicts with competing human interests are inevitable – many people would be displaced and livelihoods impaired. Forcing a trade-off between human development and sustaining biodiversity is unlikely to lead to a solution with biodiversity preserved.”

Conclusion: biodiversity loss has been underestimated, while the effectiveness of protected areas is being overestimated

“Given the considerable effort and widespread support for the creation of protected areas over the past 30 years, we were surprised to find so much evidence for their failure to effectively address the global problem of biodiversity loss,” Dr. Mora concludes. “Clearly, the biodiversity loss problem has been underestimated and the ability of protected areas to solve this problem overestimated.”

The authors underline the correlations between growing world population, natural resources consumption and biodiversity loss to suggest that biodiversity loss is unlikely to be stemmed without directly addressing the ecological footprint of humanity. Based upon previous research, the study shows that under current conditions of human consumption and conservative scenarios of human population growth, the cummulative use of natural resources of humanity will amount to the productivity of up to 27 Earths by 2050.

“Protected areas are a valuable tool in the fight to preserve biodiversity. We need them to be well managed, and we need more of them, but they alone cannot solve our biodiversity problems,” adds Dr. Mora. “We need to recognize this limitation promptly and to allocate more time and effort to the complicated issue of human overpopulation and consumption.”

“Our study shows that the international community is faced with a choice between two paths,” Dr. Sale says. “One option is to continue a narrow focus on creating more protected areas with little evidence that they curtail biodiversity loss. That path will fail. The other path requires that we get serious about addressing the growth in size and consumption rate of our global population.”

Tribal scientists and indigenous knowledge often ignored

The conclusions of this assessment will be debated widely in the months and years to come. However, one shortcoming of studies by these and other scientists is that they persistently fail to include traditional knowledge and scientific data available from indigenous communities throughout the world in developing solutions to protecting land-based and marine ecosystems.

One of the most extreme examples of this institutional racism and scientific arrogance is in California where MLPA and state officials refused to appoint any tribal scientists to the MLPA Science Advisory Team (SAT), in spite of the fact that the Yurok Tribe alone has a Fisheries Department with over 70 staff members during the peak fishing season, including many scientists. The MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force also didn’t include any tribal representatives until 2010 when one was finally appointed to the panel.

Mike Belchik, senior fisheries biologist from the Yurok Fisheries Program, dispelled the false notion that the MLPA is a “science-based” process when he gave a brief presentation challenging the assumptions of the MLPA “science” at the Fish and Game Commission meeting in Stockton on June 29 (http://blogs.alternet.org/danbacher/2011/07/15/tribal-science-challenges-mlpa-initiative-assumptions).

One of these assumptions is: “For the purpose of comparison, an unfished system is a marine reserve that is successful in protecting that ecosystem from all effects of fishing and other extractive uses within the MPA.”

“With regard to local shoreline systems, where there is access, there are no ‘unfished’ systems,” said Belchik. “People have coexisted with these resources for many thousands of years; the appropriate conceptual organization foundation is that systems have been managed, and what is seen is the result of millennia of management.”

One key reason why marine protected areas aren’t producing the results that scientists predicted could be because the scientists didn’t consult with indigenous people who successfully managed marine and land ecosystems for thousands of years.

For the news release, go to: http://www.sciencenewsline.com/nature/2011072817400007.html.


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