An ocean of potential in common management tools

The United Nations’ ocean Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 14) is ambitious, and the road ahead is clouded. With familiar area-based management tools, we can get there.

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From ending poverty and hunger globally to combatting climate change, meeting the United Nation's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may well be the biggest challenge our societies will face in the coming decade. Reaching SDG 14 — an ambitious goal aiming to "conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development" — will be no exception.

When we look at SDG 14 and its seven aspirational targets, like preventing pollution or ending overfishing, it's hard not to wonder: how can we achieve in a decade what we've failed to do for centuries? How do we get there? We set out to answer this question and give some of the first guidance on how ocean planners can use their familiar management toolbox to achieve SDG 14. 

Marine protected areas, territorial user right fisheries, and fisheries closures have at least one thing in common; they are all management tools used to regulate human activities in specific locations. These Area-Based Management Tools (ABMTs) deliver different outcomes that can benefit ocean ecosystems and users, from increasing species diversity to preserving access to resources and cultural traditions.

"Whales Near Tanker" by Green Fire Productions is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Our journey started with a daunting task: finding evidence of outcomes from familiar area-based tools. Do marine protected areas really improve income from fisheries? Can a gear restriction area really maintain habitat? We consulted the scientific literature and experts to find evidence of key social, ecological, and economic outcomes like these. With this evidence in hand, we make the connection between management tools and SDG 14 targets and give guidance to decision-makers on how our toolbox can be used most strategically.

Our findings tell us an unsurprising story: because much of ocean science has been dedicated to protecting biodiversity and sustaining fish populations, the evidence shows us that SDG 14 targets that focus on improving ocean ecosystems are more likely to benefit from our management tools. A less expected finding: when management tools center local perspectives in governance, the outcomes they deliver increase the potential for these tools to contribute to socially and economically focused targets.

 When we compare the different tools, it is clear that tools regulating more than one human activity hold the most potential to get us to SDG 14, since they provide more diverse social and ecological outcomes.

By trying to understand how to get to SDG 14, we uncover some important gaps in the ocean management toolbox. We find that the assessed ABMTs are not likely to help us with targets for ocean pollution issues, like plastic, or ocean acidification – an ever-increasing issue under climate change.

Our findings confirm realities that have long been understood in science, but warrant repeating in a clear voice: not all ocean problems can be solved with only ocean management tools, and we can no longer manage the ocean one activity at a time.

Read the full paper: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-00659-2

 Header photo: "Fishing Boats, Oban, Scotland" by Ray in Manila is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Julie Reimer

PhD Candidate, Memorial University of Newfoundland

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