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Protected areas need to be truly protected

A new study suggests many wildlife protected areas are being overexploited.

A new study suggests many wildlife protected areas are being overexploited

The Yasuni Biosphere Reserve in Equador. (Julie Larsen Maher, Wildlife Conservation Society)

Marine biologists flying over a protected area of the ocean off Cape Cod were delighted to see a plethora of wildlife thriving in the waters, showing how nature can restore itself if we leave it alone. But a report out of Australia has found that one-third of the world's protected lands are being degraded by human activity and are not actually protecting wildlife.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument, located about 200 km off the east coast of the U.S., was established in 2016 as the first American marine preserve in the Atlantic.

Covering more than 12,000 square kilometres, it includes part of the edge of the continental shelf, a huge underwater cliff that marks the boundary between relatively shallow waters that run along the coast and the abyss of the deep sea. The cliff is cut by deep canyons, while conical shaped mountains rise from the sea floor.

It has been studied for decades and is a great source of biodiversity.

Rarely observed Sowerby's beaked whales photographed during an aerial survey by researchers from the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life (Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life/New England Aquarium)

In a recent aerial survey, scientists with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium spent four hours flying over the region and were stunned at the diversity of sea creatures that could be seen from the air.

Several species of whale, including pilot whales, endangered sperm whales, rarely seen Sowerby's Beaked whales, along with dolphins, large sharks and huge sunfish were thriving in the area. And that was just what could be seen on the surface.

The abundance of life shows that the concept of protected areas can actually work.  By restricting fishing or resource development in areas rich in biodiversity, species will have the space to recover, thrive and grow. Eventually, as populations increase, animals will leave the area and populate other regions where commercial fishing can take place. In other words, by not fishing in one region, we supply stocks for other regions.

An iguana in Yasuni National Park, Equador (Jaime Palacios, Wildlife Conservation Society)

However, despite the success seen underwater, a disturbing report found that many protected areas on land are not really doing the job. Since the Convention on Biological Diversity was ratified by 150 countries in 1992, almost 15 per cent of land and 8 per cent of oceans are now under protection.

But even though these areas are designated as protected, nations around the world have allowed logging, mining, drilling operations and even towns to be built without restrictions. All this pressure from human activity has interfered with wildlife, causing reductions in populations of the very animals and plants the areas are supposed to protect.

This map depicts human pressure withing protected areas in southern North America (GreenFireScience)

One good news part of the story is that protected areas in Northern Canada are succeeding. But that is mostly because populations in those regions are very low, so pressure from human activity is minimal. Still, that could change because vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals lay hidden beneath the Canadian north and will likely be developed in the future.

It is a sad reality that the natural value of biodiversity can be quickly overshadowed by the financial value of resources such as oil or natural gas that are discovered in a protected region. As more and more offshore drilling is developed along U.S. coastlines, scientists are adamant that the protected areas remain protected.

The short-term gains from resource extraction should not be at the expense of the long-term benefit of preserving biodiversity for future generations.

About the Author

Bob McDonald

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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