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How to meet new global targets in the offshore realms: biophysical guidelines for offshore networks of no-take Marine Protected Areas

26 Jul 2021

Networks of no-take marine protected areas (MPAs), where all extractive activities are prohibited, are the most effective tool to directly protect marine ecosystems from destructive and unsustainable human activities. No-take MPAs and MPA networks have been globally implemented in coastal seas, and their success has been significantly enhanced where science-based biophysical guidelines have informed their design. Increasingly, as human pressure on marine ecosystems is expanding further offshore, governments are establishing offshore MPAs—some very large—or MPA networks. Globally, there are growing calls from scientists, non-government organisations, and national governments to set global conservation targets upwards of 30%. Given that most of the ocean is found either in the high seas or offshore within national Exclusive Economic Zones, large offshore MPAs or networks of MPAs must be a major component of these global targets for ocean protection. However, without adequate design, these offshore MPAs risk being placed to minimise conflict with economic interests, rather than to maximise biodiversity protection. This paper describes detailed biophysical guidelines that managers can use to design effective networks of no-take MPAs in offshore environments. We conducted a systematic review of existing biophysical design guidelines for networks of MPAs in coastal seas, and found consistent elements relating to size, shape, connectivity, timeframes, and representation of biophysical features. However, few of the guidelines are tailored to offshore environments, and few of the large offshore MPAs currently in place were designed systematically. We discuss how the common inshore design guidelines should be revised to be responsive to the characteristics of offshore ecosystems, including giving consideration of issues of scale, data availability, and uncertainty. We propose 10 biophysical guidelines that can be used to systematically design offshore networks of MPAs which will also contribute to the global goal of at least 30% protection globally. Finally, we offer three priority guidelines that reflect the unique conservation needs of offshore ecosystems: emphasising the need for larger MPAs; maximising the inclusion of special features that are known and mapped; and representing minimum percentages of habitats, or, where mapped, bioregions. Ultimately, MPA guidelines need to be embedded within an adaptive management framework, and have the flexibility to respond to emerging knowledge and new challenges.

Tags: MPA

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