Today's Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) leave nearly three-quarters of unsustainable ecologically and functionally important items, resulting in a new evaluation of the performance of the Finnish MPA network. Posted in The Marine Science Border, the study finds that EIAs had limited knowledge of local marine biodiversity and that the increase in existing networks by only 1% in ecologically most important areas could double the conservation of the most important species. In addition to identifying areas of high sustainability, the methodology – which uses a unique new data set of 140,000 samples – can also be used in ecosystem-based marine spatial planning and impact avoidance, including wind, aquaculture and other human activities .
Marine ecosystems are experiencing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity from habitat destruction, the changing marine environment and rising seabed.
"It now means, more than ever, that protected areas are vital to the conservation of marine ecosystems," says Elina Virtanen, head of study at the Finnish Institute for the Environment (SYKE), Finland.
Marine protected areas – which can include estuaries, seas and oceans – protect these natural resources from human activities. In Europe, EU Member States use the EU Habitats Directive to designate protected areas on the basis of a list of habitats and species considered important for conservation.
In Finland, which has one of the most complex marine environments worldwide, about 10% of the seas are currently protected. However, the evaluation of the effectiveness of the Finnish MPA reveals that it has partially left significant parts of the ecosystem totally unprotected – with only 27% of the marine biodiversity currently protected.
How did this happen?
"The establishment of these protected areas was based on a number of important habitats, such as lagoons, shallow bays and reefs, or in the presence of seals or important bird areas instead of knowledge of submarine species or the ecological value of these areas," explains Virtanen.
While current Marine Protected Areas serve to protect many important habitats, they pay little attention to underwater nature, particularly the most important species. However, because extensive protective coverage has already been implemented in the Finnish seas, clear information on any changes to the existing EIAs is required.
"Therefore, it was important to point to areas that are the most important points for marine biodiversity," says Virtanen.
The researchers had access to about 140,000 newly collected samples of data on species and habitat distribution as well as data on human pressures and the marine environment. These data were introduced into ecodesign models to gain an overall picture of the current marine environment.
These distribution models were then applied to a spatial hierarchy technique called Zonation, which characterizes areas based on their ecological significance. This can be used to identify areas of high persistence.
"We found that increasing the protected area from 10% to 11% in the areas with the most biodiversity would double the conservation of the most ecologically important species," says Virtanen. "This means increased protection of rare and endangered species, functionally important fish species and areas".
However, the researchers emphasize that increasing protected areas is not the only way to ensure the integrity of the marine ecosystem. Human activities threatening biodiversity can also be redistributed to areas of low biodiversity and conservation value using ecosystem-based marine spatial planning.
"We also felt it important to highlight where the use of the sea, such as bottom material extraction, aquaculture or wind energy, can be allowed," says Virtanen.
This means a great victory to protect the seas, as well as a cost-effective MPA rating method that can keep policymakers happy.
Provided there is sufficient data, the approach can be used globally to show that small but targeted changes can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of protected areas – and a major impetus for sustainable use of the sea.
"There is a need to review the MPA's current limits to ensure that they focus on conservation efforts in the most valuable areas, and that greater emphasis on eco-efficiency is needed when identifying or extending MPAs," says Virtanen. "In this way we can ensure that Marine Protected Areas will achieve the objectives of global interest in an effective and effective way."
Adding the third dimension to the conservation of the sea
The Marine Science Border, DOI: 10.3389 / fmars.2018.00402, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2018.00402/full