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Media release: Groundbreaking global study is the first to map ocean areas that, if strongly protected, would help solve climate, food and biodiversity crises

Posted by Communications and Marketing on March 17, 2021 in News

An international team of researchers has developed a comprehensive global plan that would safeguard more than 80 per cent of global habitats for endangered marine species, while increasing fishing catches by more than eight million metric tons, and curbing carbon emissions by up to 1 billion tonnes per year.

The study, published today in the prestigious journal Nature, is seen as a major milestone in achieving comprehensive ocean protection of 30 per cent of marine area by 2030, as recently committed to by Canada and other countries. It is the first to show that such a level of protection would also produce economically valuable benefits, such as an abundant supply of healthy seafood and a cheap, natural solution to address climate change.

Dr. Boris Worm, a co-author of the study and Killam Research professor at Dalhousie University, leads a related research project at the Ocean Frontier Institute in Halifax, N.S. He says the report’s range of findings helps to close a gap in our knowledge about the benefits of comprehensive ocean conservation, which to date had been understudied relative to protected areas on land.

“The ocean covers 70 per cent of the earth yet, until now, its importance for solving some of the biggest challenges of our time has been overlooked,” said Dr. Worm. “Smart ocean protection will help to provide cheap natural climate solutions, make seafood more abundant and safeguard imperiled marine species – all at the same time. The benefits are clear. If we want to solve the three most pressing challenges of our century — biodiversity loss, climate change and food shortages — we must protect our ocean.”

Ocean life has been declining worldwide because of overfishing, habitat destruction and climate change. However, only seven per cent of the ocean is currently under some kind of protection, says Dr. Enric Sala, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society and lead author of the study, Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate.

“In this study, we’ve pioneered a new way to identify the places that, if strongly protected, will boost food production and safeguard marine life, all while reducing carbon emissions,” Dr. Sala said.

The analysis shows that 30 per cent is the minimum amount of ocean that the world must protect in order to provide multiple benefits to humanity.

To identify the priority areas, the authors — leading marine biologists, climate experts and economists — analyzed the world’s unprotected ocean waters based on the degree to which they are threatened by human activities that can be reduced by marine protected areas (MPAs). They then developed an algorithm to identify those areas where protections would deliver the greatest benefits across the three complementary goals of biodiversity protection, seafood production and climate mitigation. They mapped these locations to create a practical “blueprint” that governments can use to mobilize stronger benefits as they implement existing and future commitments to protect nature.

The authors found that the priority locations are distributed throughout the ocean, with the vast majority within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of coastal nations. Priority areas within Canada that show multiple benefits of protection include the Fundian Channel south of Nova Scotia, the Southern Grand Banks, and the west coast of Vancouver Island, among others.

The study finds that smartly placed MPAs that ban fishing would actually boost the production of fish at a time when supplies of wild-caught fish are dwindling and demand is rising. In doing so, the authors refute a long-held view that ocean protection harms fisheries.

As such, ocean protection should be seen as smart investment in the blue economy and a carbon-neutral future, says Dr. Worm.

Adds co-author Kristen Rechberger, CEO of Dynamic Planet: “The ocean's vast natural capital has been squandered for far too long. Our study shows that more ocean protection yields greater economic benefit and even opens up a new carbon market to help reach climate and nature goals. As the world pushes for a net-zero economy by 2050, and needs nature restored to get there, this study comes at the perfect time and shows where to invest.”

The study is also the first to calculate the climate impacts of bottom trawling, a common fishing method used worldwide that drags heavy nets across the ocean floor. It finds that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the ocean from this practice is larger than most countries’ annual carbon emissions and rivals the carbon footprint of global aviation. 

“The ocean floor is the world’s largest carbon storehouse. If we’re to succeed in stopping global warming, we must leave the carbon-rich seabed undisturbed,” said Dr. Trisha Atwood of Utah State University, a co-author of the paper. 

The study follows announcements by Canada and other countries to invest in a sustainable blue economy, while increasing ocean protection measures. It will also inform the upcoming 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in May in Kunming, China. Representatives of 190 countries will finalize an agreement to end the world’s biodiversity crisis, with the goal of protecting 30 per cent of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030.

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Author contact:
Boris Worm
Killam Research Professor in Marine Conservation Biology
Dalhousie University
Cell: 1-902-210-8330

Media contact:
Alison Auld
Senior Research Reporter
Dalhousie University
Cell: 1-902-220-0491


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