By Mapping Oceans, Scientists Identify Areas Most In Need Of Protection

Nov 15, 2019

A team of marine scientists are on a mission to preserve biodiversity in oceans around the world. To do it, they need accurate maps that will help them identify areas in need of protection. There are several ongoing projects to create these maps. But they’re led by different groups, using different methods that can produce conflicting results.  

So the team of scientists got together and created the first of its kind mapping study that could provide a global roadmap on where to place Marine Protected Areas. One of those scientists is Ellen Pikitch, the Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Science in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at Stony Brook University.

Professor Pikitch recently spoke with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner about the project. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

BUCHNER: Hello, Professor.

PIKITCH: Hello!

BUCHNER: Tell us, what’s unique about this study? 

PIKITCH: What’s unique is that this study brings together a whole lot of information put together by many teams, and it melds them together to see where they agree. Where do we have consensus? And the places that should be priorities for further protection. 

BUCHNER: What did you need to know that the other map studies weren’t telling you?

PIKITCH: Well the other map studies weren’t talking to one another. So what we really did was get them to speak with one voice and see where they agreed. If 10 different studies, or seven or six, all think that a certain area is important, even though they use different criteria to reach that judgment, well then, we’re revealing a consensus that this place is important. We probably should protect it. 

BUCHNER: You found that 55% of the world’s oceans have been identified as important. How is an area in the ocean identified as important and in need of protection?

PIKITCH: Yeah, so we were surprised that 55% of the ocean came up as being important in this study. Some examples would include areas that are in really good condition, that are pristine, that are productive, that have high biodiversity. And others might actually be focusing on bigger concerns. Some areas have threatened or endangered species in them. Or they might contain a species that occurs nowhere else in the world. So they’re very vulnerable.  

BUCHNER: Once you’ve designated a spot in the ocean an MPA how do you protect it? Do you put a fence around it?

PIKITCH: That’s a good question. In order for these Marine Protected Areas to really work, they have to be monitored, and there has to be enforcement. For some of the small MPAs, they’re basically enforced by eyes out on the ocean. In some cases people looking out from shore or the Coast Guard going out, basically roaming the seas looking for people who are not following the rules.  

BUCHNER: And which parts of the world’s oceans are most in need of protecting right now?

PIKITCH: We looked at areas that were both important and yet at the same time are not being protected today. We found that off the coast of southeast Africa, and between southeast Africa and Madagascar, there is a huge area of ocean that really popped up as being quite important and very, very little if any of it is being protected today. Another area is the Caribbean. There are a lot of small Marine Protected Areas in the Caribbean. But there are a lot of places within that region that are quite important and again are not protected. The Mediterranean was another example and something we call the Coral Triangle, which is an area that is sort of shaped like a triangle in the Pacific Ocean, that is known to have the highest biodiversity of marine life in the ocean.  

BUCHNER: And do you expect this to be an ongoing mapping project?

PIKITCH: That’s very much the intent. Because what we see today is based on the information we have today, and we’re always learning new things. And new things are happening. The amount of protection that we’re seeing has been rising very dramatically. And a lot of that is because the United Nations agreed to protect 10% of the oceans by the year 2020, and that deadline is right around the corner.