Biodiversity globally is in crisis, as human activities from overfishing to habitat destruction and climate change are causing species losses at an alarming rate. In the U.S., three core high-level initiatives are underway to stem biodiversity loss and combat climate change, including the President’s commitment to protect 30% of coastal and marine waters by 2030, the White House Ocean Climate Action Plan, and most recently, the launch of a National Ocean Biodiversity Strategy.
In a new paper in the journal One Earth, an international task force of experts developed a scientific framework to evaluate the abundance and distribution of marine biodiversity and applied it to U.S. waters from the near coast to the borders of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Dr. Emmett Duffy, Task Force Co-Chair and MarineGEO Director at the Smithsonian Institution, noted “while 26 percent of the U.S. marine territory is currently within some form of area-based conservation, few regions meet criteria to protect biodiversity in a way that would foster health and resilience in marine systems as a whole.”
“At this time when we are seeing massive loss of biodiversity from climate change and other human-produced stressors, it is especially important that we understand what biodiversity we are actually conserving in U.S. waters,” says Dr. Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn, lead author and Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at University of Massachusetts Lowell. “This paper can serve as a baseline assessment of current protections and provides a framework for the future.”
Making Area-Based Conservation Effective Requires a Network Approach
The astounding array of biodiversity in our oceans and the habitats that support it are at the heart of ecosystem health, sustaining a range of essential services from shoreline protection to commercial and recreational fishing, carbon sequestration, and more. But just putting in place more marine protected areas (MPAs) is not enough.
“Protection of marine life requires a network of protected areas that are more than the sum of their parts,” says Shannon Colbert, Vice President of External Affairs, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, which also helped to fund this study. “In other words, effective MPAs are ecologically representative, foster connectivity between habitats, and take into account the dynamic nature of coastal and marine systems.”
Building the Scientific Foundation for Area-Based Conservation
Data collection and monitoring that trigger management actions are often piecemeal, driven by individual objectives to protect specific species or places. The new framework allows managers to see the bigger picture.
“Our work provides the basis for consistent, systematic characterization of biodiversity at a national scale,” says Dr. Daniel Dunn, Task Force Co-Chair and Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland, “enabling us to understand how species and habitats are both changing over time and responding to management interventions.” The framework is not only crucial to high-level initiatives like the National Ocean Biodiversity Strategy, it an also inform management under an array of existing laws, such as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act, all of which include provisions for area-based conservation.
Applying the Framework in U.S. Waters
The framework quantifies indicators of biodiversity (i.e., habitat forming species, species of conservation concern harmful organisms, and key food web taxa) across 24 distinct ecoregions. It then compares those indicators against the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) five criteria for an effective MPA network:
- Important areas of specific taxa;
- Representativity of a region’s biodiversity and habitat types;
- Connectivity among MPAs;
- Replication of sites with particular biodiversity components; and
- Viability and Adequacy of the size of an MPA to maintain ecosystem integrity.
While U.S. protected areas fail to meet network criteria at a national scale, MPAs vary widely in success across ecoregions. Balancing multiple network criteria is key – some regions have lower coverage but more effective MPAs because they better balance representativity, replication, and connectivity.
Continuing Marine Biodiversity Dialogues through Community-Based Research
“For the Lenfest Ocean Program and our partners at National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, this is just the beginning,” says Charlotte Hudson, Director of the Lenfest Ocean Program. “Our goal is for this framework to be continually applied to assess marine biodiversity and evaluate the effectiveness of MPAs and other management actions over time. Only then can we foster strategic and flexible adaptive management, especially in the face of climate change.”
Leadership from the Task Force and their federal partners are already involved in the development of the National Ocean Biodiversity Strategy. And to build on this monumental effort, the Lenfest Ocean Program, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation are now supporting Marine Biodiversity Dialogues Task Force II.
Led by Dr. Duffy along with Gabrielle Canonico, U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System and U.S. Marine Biodiversity Observation Network, and Dr. Steven Scyphers, University of South Alabama, they are expanding membership to include additional knowledge holders beyond just scientists and aim to elucidate how different communities – managers, resource users, right-holders – perceive the role of diverse marine life in fostering healthy marine ecosystems.
To learn about the work of the first phase of Marine Biodiversity Dialogues and our work going forward:
- Now in One Earth, National and regional assessment of marine biodiversity: A new approach applied to protected and unprotected U.S. Waters
- Fact sheet summarizing the paper's key points
- Marine Biodiversity Dialogues Task Force II
- Virtual Event recording: Marine Biodiversity Dialogues, Accelerating Uptake of Scientific Knowledge to Turn Commitment into Action