Conserving Biological Diversity through Marine Protected Areas: A Global Challenge

Article excerpt

Scientists believe that off the coasts of the United States, from the frigid ice-scoured waters of the Arctic Ocean to the tropical reefs of the Florida Keys, the West Indies, and the Pacific Islands, there are more kinds of marine plants and animals in more kinds of marine habitats than are found off any other in the world.

A Nation of Oceans, descriptive document on the US National Marine Sanctuary Program, 1986

Custody of the world's most biologically diverse marine waters bears with it a special responsibility to protect them. The National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP), the only federal program specifically designed to provide comprehensive protection of the nation's extraordinary US marine ecosystems, has excellent potential for conserving their tremendous biological diversity. Since its creation in 1972, the sanctuary program has achieved considerable success, despite extremely limited resources and variable levels of administration support.

The recent addition of several new and larger sanctuaries brings important challenges and opportunities. In particular, large, new sanctuaries surrounding the Florida Keys and off the Central California coast provide the opportunity to develop truly state-of-the-art protected areas using an integrated coastal management approach. Some progress has already been made, but more is needed. If the Clinton administration recognizes and seizes this opportunity, the US can establish itself as the international marine protected area leader that our outstanding resources merit.

For too long, marine protected areas and marine conservation in general have been neglected relative to their terrestrial counterparts. This is surprising to marine scientists and others who know and love the oceans. After all, oceans cover 71 percent of Earth's surface. Moreover, considering that organisms occupy three dimensions rather than two, the oceans provide over 99 percent of Earth's living space.

Fortunately, there is a growing international appreciation of the oceans' importance. A comprehensive strategy to protect global biodiversity must focus considerable attention on marine areas or, more precisely, marine volumes. The world community is slowly waking up to the importance of conserving marine biological diversity and the key contribution marine protected areas can make to this effort. This sea change in attitude is reflected in outcomes from the decadal World Parks Congress and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held last year in Caracas and Rio de Janeiro, respectively. It is also apparent in the development of the international Global Marine Biological Diversity Strategy by several organizations interested in conservation.

Marine Biodiversity is Threatened

Simply defined, biological diversity is the diversity of life, but there are more complex definitions that recognize different levels of diversity. For instance, one definition encompasses species diversity (variety among species), genetic diversity (variety among genes within species), and ecosystem diversity (variety among specific environments and the biological communities they contain). But even this is not the whole story.

Additional definitions of biological diversity are useful for certain purposes. One of these, the diversity of higher taxonomic groups, which recognizes that all species are not created equal, is useful for comparing terrestrial and marine biodiversity. Taxonomy, the science that classifies organisms into groups (taxa) based on their interrelationships, uses a hierarchical classification system. The basic unit of taxonomy is the species. Terrestrial species diversity may be greater than marine species diversity (though there is still much to learn about marine species), but marine diversity is greater at higher taxonomic levels.

The diversity of life in the seas is spectacular, invaluable to mankind, and likely essential to the maintenance of life on Earth. …