Creating the world’s biggest marine protected areas. Will Europe follow in Obama’s footsteps?

© OCEANA / Juan Cuetos

Author: Agata Mrowiec
Date: June 23, 2014



 “I’m going to use my authority to protect some of our nation’s most precious marine landscapes”, announced President Obama during the international summit “Our Ocean”, which took place last week at the US State Department. The White House’s decision is one of the biggest concrete steps that the US government is taking in the fight to protect the oceans, and it was made in conjunction with an initiative to combat seafood fraud and illegal fishing in American territory.

The proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPA), a 2 million square kilometer extension to the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, will become both the world’s largest MPA and largest no-take area in the world (off limits to commercial fishing, energy explorations and drilling).

America’s exceptional announcement sets quite a challenge for those of us across the ocean. The question is, can the EU follow in Obama’s footsteps?

Unlike the US, Europe does not possess vast MPAs, mostly because remote and uninhabited areas are rarer in EU waters where commercial activities tend to be more intense, as is the case in the North Sea for instance. However, the right political leadership could greatly improve the situation in most of Europe’s seas.

In 2011, Oceana launched Oceana MedNet, the first comprehensive proposal for a network of MPAs in the Mediterranean, which identifies 100 suggested new sites that would cover 12 % of the Mediterranean Sea. Several of the habitats located in the proposed coverage area include seamounts and deep-water canyons, which are of high importance to marine species.

Oceana’s recent study on Protected Areas in the Baltic Sea, revealed a severe lack of adequate fisheries regulations within the MPAs.  However, the report suggests a lot can be achieved in Europe with proper management practices that prevent the creation of “virtual reserves”.

Although the OSPAR Commission has taken steps to protect High Sea MPAs, the Arctic region is still largely neglected, allowing irresponsible industrial fishing, shipping, and oil and gas exploration to develop. Placing maritime policy high on the EU agenda is a fundamental prerequisite to assuring real progress in marine conservation in Europe.

Will the new European Commissioner for the Environment meet the challenge?