Wed, 24 Sep 2003

Seeking protection for oceans and seas

Klaus Toepfer, The Dawn, Asia News Network, Karachi, Pakistan

In early September, delegates from across the globe descended on the South African city of Durban to chart the way forward for the world's national parks and protected areas.

This once in a decade event is both cause for celebration and cause for concern. It is well over 100 years since the creation of the first, modern, protected area -- Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

Over 10 percent of the earth's land surface has now been afforded protection and there are countless examples of success stories for both people and wildlife as a result.

The same, however, cannot be said for the marine world. Indeed figures to be released at the IUCN's 5th World Parks Congress by UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Center, will show that less than one percent of the oceans and seas have been given the same kind of protection.

It is not all doom and gloom. Australia, for example, has just unveiled proposals to create large swathes of so-called "no take areas" across Queensland's Great Barrier Reef.

These "no take areas", in which fishing and extractive industries such as mining and dredging will be banned, will cover roughly one-third of the 350,000 square kilometer marine park up from just under 5 percent now.

The tourism industry, which generates nearly US$3 billion annually for the local and national economy and which employs more than 47,000 people, is delighted. It believes the scheme will increase the number and size of fish for the visitors to see, and improve and expand good snorkeling and diving sites.

The coming into force of the UN Law of the Sea Convention, the development of regional fisheries agreements and initiatives such as UNEP's Regional Seas Program are among some of the recent developments that are focusing attention on the marine world.

Many fishermen's organizations, appalled by the collapse of stocks and the devastation of livelihoods, are demanding action too. They also realize that the unfettered use of the drift net, the bottom trawl and the purse seine means there will nothing of value left to catch in a few short years.

Last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development and its Plan of Implementation gives governments, in partnership with industry and civil society, a blueprint for action, including for oceans.

Among its recommendations and targets and timetables are ones to, where possible, restore fish stocks to healthy levels by 2015 and to advance the implementation of the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) to reduce the threat of pollution. Significantly, it also urges the establishment of a global network of marine protected areas.

Big questions remain, not least in areas of funding and enforcement especially in developing countries. But, there is growing evidence that well-managed marine protected areas not only cover their costs, but can generals substantial income for the benefit of local people and national economies.

The theme of this year's Congress is "Benefits beyond boundaries". It is time to wholeheartedly support the early stirrings of this world-wide marine protected area movement, so that there are no longer artificial boundaries between the land and the oceans.

The writer is executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.