It’s not rocket science - closing areas of land and water to humans allows nature to recover and restore its fragile balance. The idea has been successfully tried and tested many times on land but it has taken years of destruction before the message has hit home for the oceans.
Ten years ago in Johannesburg, global leaders committed for the first time to establish by 2012 networks of marine protected areas to protect oceans from human impacts. The 2012 target has been reiterated over and over in global and regional environmental political meetings. In 2007 Mediterranean governments agreed to set aside by 2012 marine protected areas including seas areas of international waters to save marine life, and in 2009 they agreed to a plan to make it happen.
It’s now February 2012. I am in freezing Paris where the 17th meeting of the Mediterranean Environment Convention – the Barcelona Convention – has just taken place. The icy temperatures here in the French capital reflect the cold truth. There is no Mediterranean network in place... in fact the last area of international waters to be protected was set up ten years ago! The complex politics of the region and thorny histories between governments has hindered collaboration for the protection of the oceans that belong to all of us- you and me.
In the past years Greenpeace has taken direct action in the Mediterranean to stop the senseless plunder of bluefin tuna. We have published reports and scientific information highlighting areas, such as the Sicilian Channel and the Balearics, and have proposed a network of marine reserves covering 40% of the Mediterranean sea.
In Paris, once again Greenpeace denounced the lack of action and urged governments to stop dragging their feet and take action. The meeting finally decided to send the the list of ecologically and biologically significant areas identified by the regional scientific project to the global Convention on Biological Diversity. The science has identified significant areas in the region - fragile seamounts, coral reefs and spawning areas of species such as bluefin tuna. Countries now need to take up the responsibility to protect these areas against overfishing, destructive fishing, pollution and abandon their catastrophic plans to drill for oil and gas. Will the Mediterranean countries act to defend the sea, despite the region’s political and financial turmoil? Or will there be more empty promises?
Unlike most areas of the world, the lack of progress in the Med is less about legal gaps and more a result of the lack of political will. For most parts of the world’s oceans however, there is no mechanism to set up and manage protected areas in the high seas. A new Oceans Rescue Plan is necessary to spell these rules out and we hope that the need to negotiate such an agreement will be agreed at the Rio 2012 conference this June. Unfortunately countries such as the U.S, Iceland and Norway still enjoy the wild west of the high seas and want to see no further development of rules to protect and manage marine life in these areas. Thankfully, the 22 Mediterranean countries at least sent the opposite message through the Paris declaration last Friday.
Sofia Tsenikli is an oceans policy advisor based in Greenpeace Greece’s Athens office.