Who’s Watching Our Ocean Parks?

By Mark J. Spalding, President, The Ocean Foundation
Blog 2 in a series about the Wild10 Conference in Salamanca, Spain 

Marine Protected Areas are one of the most promising solutions for the survival of coral reefs and the many benefits they provide to people. (Photo by Wolcott Henry)

Imagine a remote ocean wilderness labeled as a park on every chart.  Imagine a whale swimming through. Imagine huge schools of fish.  Imagine brilliant corals growing in dark canyons.  Imagine an enormous fishing boat coming in and dropping heavy gear that tumbles down the canyon walls stripping centuries of coral gardens and scooping thousands of fish and other creatures from the park.  If no one is there to see, who can stop this destruction of the park? Our panel this morning was focused on setting targets for wild marine protected areas, which was intended to provide a launching point for additional panels by providing an overview of existing strategies for developing and implementing marine protected areas and marine protected area network strategies.  We focused too on how to improve enforcement of marine protected areas—especially since the lack of consistent enforcement is one of those most frequently offered criticisms of even trying to set up a marine protected area network.

A marine protected area can take many forms.  It might be an area that is closed at certain times of the year to fishing and other activities, because it happens to be a prime breeding ground for a significant species, such as bluefin tuna.  Or, it might be a year-round closure that limits the kinds of fishing gear and perhaps other activities that can take place within the boundary.  Or it might be a series of areas designed to be closed temporarily or year-round to protect the migration of a series of species throughout their life cycle.  In such a case, a series of linked areas might begin in a marsh and end out in open water to cover the breeding, nursery, and feeding grounds of key species.  Or it might run in a narrow band along the coast, representing common migratory patterns for fish and other species.

So, drawing a boundary on a map of the ocean and declaring certain activities to be off-limits within that boundary is a challenge from the start.  How do you know if you are drawing the boundary in the right place?  What kinds of activities should be allowed?  How will we know if those activities remain benign as the chemistry and temperature of the area changes?  If we allow some activities and not others, how do we tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys?”

With a size of 408,250 km2 (157,626 sq. miles) the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

Well, on land, we can obviously use a combination of people, fences, cameras, airplanes, and other available technologies to patrol even larger swaths of territory and intervene readily if we have the resources on the ground.  For many marine protected areas, especially the largest ones such as those in Hawaii (Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument), Kiribati (Phoenix Islands Protected Area), and Ecuador (Galápagos National Park), there are many such challenges.

We have to ask ourselves how can we make marine protected areas succeed.  Obviously, we need to provide scientific support for the purpose for which the area is protected.  And we need to ensure that there is sufficient state capacity, political will, surveillance technologies and financial resources.  And finally, we have to ensure that there is sufficient monitoring to allow the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be caught and deterred.

Now imagine a silent sentinel scanning the ocean surface and taking stock of every change since its last pass.  It captures the outline of the fishing boat, its location, and the speed of its passage, triggering a response in a manned vessel far away.  This is the hope we have for enforcement in the future—real time, real images, real outcomes.  Of course, this emerging arena, which relies heavily on air and water borne unmanned vessels, is fraught with challenges too.

First, it’s about the money.  Reserve managers have to have the financial resources to identify the best available tools, purchase them, deploy them, and of course maintain and or replace them.  It is not easy to ensure that the surveillance occurs in real time.  And, of course, if you’re going to be flying unmanned surveillance vehicles, the local aviation ministry might have relevant regulations that need to be obeyed.   Still—it is an exciting field.  I will highlight just three kinds of technology here

The technology is getting more efficient every day—and more and more scientists are building their own small, unmanned surveillance vehicles that can follow established patterns to photograph and otherwise record data.  To get an idea of how unmanned monitors can be used by students and scientists in the field, please check out www.conservationdrone.org– the survey and monitoring of a small island in Panama is one example of the gear being put into use in coastal zones.

Wave gliders are the first unmanned autonomous marine robots to use the ocean’s endless supply of wave energy for propulsion.  Thus, they require no manpower or refueling and produce no emissions. With its ability to stay out at sea for long durations through all weather conditions, and communicate They provide real-time data from the surface of the ocean and have covered thousands of nautical miles since they were first deployed a few years ago.

Synthetic Aperture Radar can map the landscape continuously.  Thus, changes in the ocean surface, and in nearby coastal areas, are readily measured in this continuing mapping process.  (LINK to NASA explanation website)

Along with these technologies, other tools can and should come into play—more informed managers can design better enforcement regimes, management plans, and more useful boundary definitions.  Willing members of targeted commercial fisheries can volunteer their ships to help with monitoring and helping to preserve specialty closures for their own long-term economic interests.  Transponders cannot only record where ships have been and when, but also help mark the boundaries of protected areas.  Together, conservation and government organizations can design mutually supporting survey programs that help everyone ensure the future health of their marine wilderness legacy.

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