As countries rush to protect their seas, endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh calls to preserve the Antarctic

December 13, 2016 - Since April, the world has added an unprecedented 3.6 million square kilometres - an area larger than India - to the amount of ocean and sea covered by marine protected areas (MPAs), taking the global total coverage beyond 5 per cent for the first time in history.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, which meets in Mexico this week, has urged the world to protect at least 10 per cent of its costal and marine areas by 2020. That goal - part of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets - has now been exceeded at a global level for marine areas under national jurisdiction.

According to latest figures from the revised Protected Planet report, the recent creation and expansion of five "mega MPAs" in Chile, Palau, Hawaii, the Pitcairn Islands and St Helena's in the South Atlantic pushed the global total to 12.7 per cent.

"The establishment of so many new protected areas is tremendous news and should give those fighting tirelessly to conserve the world's oceans and seas an enormous sense of achievement," said Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment.

"But we must remember that the Aichi Biodiversity Targets also call for countries to focus their conservation efforts on the areas of greatest biodiversity. It is not just about size of the area under protection but also about where these zones are located and how strong that protection really is."

Speaking to the delegates to the Mexico conference, UN Environment Patron of Oceans and endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh welcomed their efforts and announced his campaign Antarctica 2020, which aims to secure additional MPAs in vulnerable Antarctic areas, spanning nearly 7 million square kilometres - roughly the size of Australia.

"We have entered a new era of uncertainty, with many hard-fought conservation achievements now under threat. It's time to build on our recent success in the Ross Sea. With public support, I believe we can achieve the most ambitious ocean protection plan in history," said Pugh, speaking from Antarctica's icy Bellingshausen Sea, where he is undertaking a swim in the freezing waters to bring the world's attention to ocean protection.

In October this year, after five years of negotiations, spurred on by Pugh's "speedo diplomacy", 1.57 million square kilometres of the Ross Sea - an area larger than the UK, France, Germany and Italy combined - was declared a protected area.

The ongoing UN Biodiversity Conference in Cancun has also seen spectacular announcements, led by Mexico's pledge to preserve an additional 650,000 square kilometres of land and sea, and place nearly a quarter of its territorial waters under protection. This commitment includes the establishment of the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve, covering 57,000 square kilometres.

"As president for the UN Biodiversity Conference, Mexico wants to send a clear signal on the urgency to meet the Aichi Targets by taking unprecedented actions to preserve marine and terrestrial ecosystems," said Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico.

"Mexico has surpassed its commitment to achieve the Aichi goals for marine areas and is on track to achieve land protected areas."

Other pledges made in Cancun included Cambodia's commitment to nearly double the amount of its protected areas, which will now cover around one third of the country's total land. United Arab Emirates have indicated their intention to declare 18 new protected areas, including four marine ones.

Today, there are 14,859 MPAs spread across 18.5 million square kilometres of ocean and sea, according to new figures released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and UN Environment's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, which compile data on the world's protected areas.

However, the two organizations have warned that not all ecosystems and areas rich in biodiversity are equally represented, nor are all protected areas effectively or equitably managed. According to the Protected Planet Report 2016 released in September, only one third of the world's marine ecoregions have more than 10 per cent of their area protected.

The world's oceans are its largest source of protein while more than three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for livelihoods. When managed correctly, marine protected areas can boost the abundance of fish and increase biodiversity.

Studies show that effective MPAs, where fishing is banned, have twice as many large fish species, a fivefold increase in large fish biomass, and 14 times the amount of shark biomass than fished areas.

Additional quotes

"I welcome the leadership that Mexico and the Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries have shown at the UN Biodiversity Conference here in Cancun, Mexico, in extending the reach of protected areas and we are looking forward to the same ambition being met across the other targets," said Dr. Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity

"IUCN welcomes this important milestone in protecting the world's seas. Marine protected areas are crucial for sustainable development and global food security, as well as helping conserve the rich diversity of life on this planet," said Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Inger Andersen.

NOTES TO EDITORS

For more information and to arrange interviews - including with Lewis Pugh in Antarctica - please contact:

UNEP Newsdesk (Nairobi), +254 715 876 185, unepnewsdesk@unep.org

Photo Credit: Kelvin Trautman