North America far off from ocean preservation targets, report finds

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North America is far from reaching national and international targets for protecting oceans, according to a first-of-its-kind report released on Wednesday.

The Dare to Be Deep report, created by a coalition of NGOs in the US, Canada and Mexico, finds that less than 1% of these countries’ oceans are protected like national parks – with only four years left to reach the 10% protection goal set in the multilateral Biodiversity Convention.

The US is not a signatory to the agreement, but Barack Obama affirmed his commitment to reach the goal in a joint statement with Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, in March.

Michael Gravitz, director of policy and legislation at the Marine Conservation Institute, said if the countries fail to reach the 10% goal, “we would expect the sort of diversity of life that lives in some of these places to be thinned out, to become less biodiverse, less stable, and less able to resist the changes that warming and acidification bring”.

Of the 0.89% of North American waters that are protected, only 0.04% are fully protected, according to the report.

Sea of Cortez Mexico

A large school of yellowtail surgeonfish in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Photograph: Robert Harding/Alamy

Marine protected areas (MPAs) include the Florida Keys and California’s Monterey Bay national marine sanctuary, which is larger than Yellowstone national park. More than 34 species of marine animals and 525 species of fish live in the marine area, which prohibits oil drilling, ocean dumping and seabed mining – though things like diving, surfing and commercial fishing are allowed.

For a marine area to be considered fully protected, regulations must prohibit any activities that pull from the ecosystem’s natural resources. The limited protection areas are regulated, but allow some types of fishing, mining and oil and gas development.

“If you said to yourself, well, we’re going to go into a national forest and we’re going to sweep the forest once every two, three weeks and shoot everything we can find, you wouldn’t expect to see many animals or much wildlife or a normal forest left after very long,” Gravitz said. “But in essence, that’s what we expect to do to the oceans.”

The joint report was put together by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Marine Conservation Institute, in collaboration with their colleagues from Mexico. It is the first time conservationists from the three North American countries have come together to examine how well the respective countries are adhering to the 10% agreement.

Campaigners say the 10% goal is a low benchmark and the countries should be aiming to exceed it, but the country-by-country analysis shows the US, Mexico and Canada will have to dramatically ramp up their conservation efforts to reach even that standard.

Canada, which has the largest coastline in the world, is the furthest behind, with only 0.02% of its waters fully protected. When the analysis is expanded to include areas that allow things like commercial fishing, 0.11% is protected.

Canada Arctic Ocean

Canada, which has the largest coastline in the world, is the furthest behind its North American neighbors in ocean preservation. Photograph: Justin Hofman/Barcroft Media

Its ocean estate is second largest only to the US, but the report’s assessment of the country excluded its remote protected areas in the Pacific Ocean, like Hawaii, because Canada and Mexico do not have similar territorial waters, which come from the US colonization of island nations. Removing these territories from the equation decreased the protected areas calculation in the US from 16.32% to 1.29%.

The report noted that the remote territories it excluded are less resistant to political conservation efforts, which the authors said was ironic because the more populated marine areas are the ones that need the most protection.

Of the three countries analyzed in the report, Mexico boasted the most protected marine land, with 1.62% waters with limited to full protection. But like Canada, overall, only 0.11% of the marine territory is fully protected.

The report authors offered nine recommendations to increase the amount of protected areas in the next four years and beyond, like creating a networked system for protected areas and making larger, better-funded zones with strict regulations.

Gravitz said creating these MPAs is an effective way to help a large marine ecosystem because things fall into place when the ocean ecosystem is healthy. He said: “Oceans really can heal themselves if you leave them alone.”

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