Saving our seas
Since 2003, research led by the University of Exeter, along with international collaborators has led to both legislative change and the designation of more than 495,000km2 of marine protected areas (MPAs). This equates to nearly 70 million football pitches!
In Gabon, research mapping both marine biodiversity and ocean users recommended areas for the designation of nine new marine parks and 11 aquatic reserves. Marine parks allow recreational activities, such as boating, snorkelling and sport fishing, whereas in aquatic reserves no fishing or development can take place.
These recommendations were accepted and led to the establishment of the first comprehensive MPA network in Central Africa, covering 56,000km2 or more than 7.8 million football pitches. This increased the proportion of Gabon’s territorial waters under formal protection from less than 1% to more than a quarter (26%).
Now experts say Gabon’s network of MPAs could provide a blueprint to be used in many other countries. Global MPA coverage is still short of a 10% target set in 2010, partly due to limited progress in many low-income and middle-income countries. However, a few of these countries – including Gabon – have met or exceeded international commitments on land and sea.
One of the lead researchers on the programme, Dr Kristian Metcalfe, Senior Lecturer in Marine Conservation Science at the University’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, says: “A combination of factors made this MPA network possible, but a crucial first step was the creation by President Ali Bongo Ondimba of a government-led initiative called ‘Gabon Bleu’ in 2013.
“This sent out a clear signal that the Gabonese government wanted to develop an MPA network and ensured all sectors – from government agencies to ocean resource users – were engaged in the planning process. This in turn gave confidence to external funders and the private sector to support the research needed.”
“Our work in places like Gabon has shown how important marine protected areas can be for protecting rare and endangered species.”
MPAs are created based on detailed evidence, resulting in an inter-connected network tailored to protect important habitats. In Gabon they protect globally important populations of sea turtles and marine mammals, with protected zones extending from north to south, and from coastal waters to 200 nautical miles offshore.
Since the MPAs in Gabon were created further research is being undertaken to ensure they are effectively managed.
Kristian says “We always work with local communities and organisations when conducting our research into potential MPAs. As well as using the latest tracking, at-sea surveys, acoustic and video surveying to map marine biodiversity, we also run socio-economic studies that consider ocean user groups like fishers and how to encompass their needs and behaviour in marine planning.”
Gabon has now committed to the 30x30 pledge, a campaign founded by University of Exeter Professor Callum Roberts, to protect 30% of its oceans by 2030.
Gabon is not the only success story for Exeter research. Further down the coast in the Republic of Congo, three new MPAs were created in 2022 that will protect more than 4,000km2. The area includes globally important nesting grounds for leatherback turtles, and critical migrating and breeding habitats for marine mammals including Atlantic humpback whales. The new MPAs are also home to more than 40 species of sharks and rays, including the world’s largest fish, the open ocean whale shark. Research in this area began in 2013 and there was a detailed process working with local fisherman, government and environmentalists to ensure appropriate decisions were taken.
Research at Ascension Island has supported the development of new protected areas legislation, as well as a biodiversity action plan. As a result, the three main marine turtle nesting beaches and a major seabird colony were designated as national nature reserves. Researchers also provided data on marine biodiversity hotspots and co-wrote a policy report providing recommendations for the designation of a Large Scale Marine Protected Area (LSMPA). In 2019, the UK Government designated 100% of the territorial waters of Ascension Island as a LSMPA, an area of 441,658km2, the second largest no take MPA in the Atlantic Ocean.
Additionally, research into the legal turtle fishery in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) led to amendments which increased protection for marine turtles, with both a closed season and size limits to protect breeding adults. This allowed the depleted nesting populations a greater chance of recovery.
Kristian says: “Our work in places like Gabon has shown how important MPAs can be for protecting rare and endangered species, as well as preserving critical habitats. The ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface but right now less than 3% of it lies within a highly protected zone. The more we can increase this number, the greater the impact we can have on marine biodiversity, climate change, and the blue economy sustained by our oceans.”