The Marine Sciences Research Center located on Stony Brook’s Southampton campus. A study by researchers in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) revealed that a large portion of important marine areas around the globe remain unprotected. MELISSA AZOFEIFA/STATESMAN FILE

A study published last month and conducted by a team including researchers from Stony Brook University has revealed that a large portion of the world’s most important marine areas remain unprotected.

The team included Ellen Pikitch, Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Science at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS); Christine Santora, SoMAS Assistant Director for Policy and Outreach; and Natasha Gownaris, a Ph.D. graduate from Stony Brook. 

The study, published in Frontiers in Marine Science on Oct. 25, is the first of its kind, compiling and examining 10 diverse and internationally recognized maps that outline marine priority areas across the globe. While there are many initiatives to map globally important marine areas by the United Nations (U.N.) and other non-governmental organizations, the team was the first to overlay this wide range of mapping initiatives. 

“We wanted to see how much these maps agree on specific areas, and what the level of consensus was on certain areas,” Santora said. “And in addition, we wanted not just to look at the areas of the highest importance, but we wanted to see, are these really important areas protected, or not?” 

The criteria used for different maps vary by initiative. For example, some may identify areas because of their high biodiversity, while others may be based on threatened or vulnerable species, or relatively natural state. This results in differences in areas that are identified as important. But by overlaying the maps, the team was able to measure agreement on areas that are significant and conduct analyses of gaps at the global scale.

“It’s already enough that one organization, who has already put a lot of effort and time into identifying areas, says this area is important — we should probably listen,” Gownaris said, who is also an Assistant Professor of Marine Ecology at Gettysburg College. “But especially when you have a consensus among several different organizations, many of which have very different purposes and scope. If they’re agreeing on an area, then we should really pay attention.” 

The study’s analysis found that 55% of the ocean has been identified as important by at least one mapping initiative. Within that, 58% is within national jurisdiction — in an area under the legal authority of a certain nation — and 42% is in the high seas, meaning open ocean, not within any country’s jurisdiction.

More than 14% of the ocean was identified as important by two to four maps, which was considered a “moderate consensus.” However, a gap analysis showed that nearly 90% of this area is currently unprotected. The largest of these important but unprotected areas were located in the Caribbean Sea, Madagascar and the southern tip of Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and the Coral Triangle region.

“We have a lot of critical threats to the ocean right now,” Santora said. “Marine protected areas have been shown to be one of the most effective tools we can implement in the ocean. And while in some cases it’s important to study things further, this map is the first step in showing that we don’t need to wait for perfect information. A lot of these maps agree that certain areas of the ocean are very valuable.”

The team’s analysis of the maps may help guide policymakers on where to expand and establish new marine protected areas (MPAs), according to Gownaris and Santora. It may also help serve as a roadmap for reaching the U.N.’s goal to create 10% of the ocean as MPAs by 2020. The study showed that this goal could be met solely through the actions of coastal states; if all of the unprotected ocean areas identified as important by two or more initiatives were to be protected by 2020, an additional 9.34% of the ocean would be added to the global MPA network.

“This study can help guide placement of future MPAs to meet agreed objectives for the quantity, quality and representativeness of the global network of marine protected areas,” Pikitch said in a press release. “Local studies and expertise will also be necessary to implement this process.”

In addition, more than 76 million km² of areas beyond national jurisdictions were identified as important and unprotected, a fact which may be helpful for informing ongoing discussions about the protection of the high seas.

“Studies of this type bring together various forms of information and help set realistic, tangible goals for marine conservation,” said Robert DiGiovanni, Jr., founder and chief scientist of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. “The importance of our marine environment needs to be at the forefront of our concerns. Our oceans are an integral part of our survival.”

The comprehensive mapping effort showed that much of the protection of already established MPAs was not ecologically representative, meaning they do a poor job of matching up with the size and shape of the important marine areas identified by scientists and protect just a portion of a vital ecosystem or range of vulnerable species. This suggests the need for improvement in creating an ecologically representative global MPA network.

“We have to move forward on these main protected areas just to ensure that the biodiversity in the world’s oceans is intact and functioning,” said Kevin McAllister, founder and CEO of Defend H2O, a Sag Harbor-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting Long Island’s various bodies of water. “I think that’s going to be critically important as we start to really feel the ramifications of climate change in the next few decades.”

“The approach taken in this study is that we all agree we should protect our oceans and that we need to do more,” DiGiovanni said. “It also lays out that if we work with coastal communities, our goals are obtainable.”

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