Protecting the biodiversity of our oceans is typically viewed as being at odds with the goals of the global fishing industry: If you want to conserve marine species, a good place to start is to leave them alone.

Now a new study in the journal Nature is challenging that thinking — at least slightly.

A team of conservation scientists has concluded that a global effort to designate specific high-priority areas as marine protected areas would have the capacity to strengthen ocean biodiversity while simultaneously improving fisheries production and conserving ocean carbon stores that are vital in limiting climate change.

“Our goal was to come out with a global map of priority areas that we could focus on to improve biodiversity conservation,” explained Assistant Professor Francesco Ferretti of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, one of 26 scientists contributing to the paper.

“We basically divided the world’s oceans into pixels, and each pixel was tested on how much impact protecting it could potentially have toward increasing biodiversity,” he continued. “We then repeated the same exercise for food production and carbon sequestration, looking at the collateral effect of each of these aspects on the others.”

The results are surprising: the team estimates that 90 percent of the ocean’s biodiversity could be preserved by strategically protecting just 21 percent of the ocean. And designating high-priority areas as marine protected areas would have significant ramifications for critically endangered ocean species. Currently, just 1.1 percent of the ranges for endangered animals are protected; this proposal, fully implemented, would see 87 percent of their ranges protected.

The impacts on carbon sequestration are also crucial. Marine sediment represents the largest store of organic carbon on the planet. The process of trawling and dredging the seafloor during commercial fishing operations reintroduces carbon, increasing ocean acidification and potentially adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup.

Using satellite information on fishing activity, the researchers determined that it would be possible to eliminate 90 percent of the risk of carbon disturbance by protecting just 3.6 percent of the ocean.

The importance of working globally

Because a sizable percentage of high-impact areas exist within Exclusive Economic Zones — which extend 200 nautical miles from each coastal country — the researchers stress the importance of finding a global strategy to strengthen the health of our oceans.

“To protect the global ocean, we need to act as a global community,” said Ferretti, a faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and an affiliate of the Global Change Center and the Center for Coastal Studies, both housed in Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Ocean resources are shared, the ecosystem benefits are shared, and everyone benefits from a globally healthy ocean. It is crucial that we find policies and mechanisms to enact this broad kind of conservation with international collaboration.”

An important consideration for enacting a global conservation plan is ensuring equity in cost.

“Not all nations will have an equal burden in establishing these marine protected areas,” Ferretti said. “Some nations will have higher costs than others, and it’s important that we have international coordination where the cost is better shared.”

The paper, funded by the National Geographic Society and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, is intended as a roadmap to help the global community in reaching crucial ocean conservation goals. To aid that effort, the paper will be presented for discussion at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 conference this year.

Bringing the oceans closer to Blacksburg

Closer to home, Ferretti believes that participating in this kind of collaborative research will allow Virginia Tech to continue to expand its footprint in ocean science.

“A central goal of our department is to expand our effort in ocean science and increase and broaden educational opportunities for our students,” Ferretti noted. “I think that Virginia Tech, with its strengths in engineering and natural sciences, can be a global hub for ocean conservation and fisheries management, and projects like this one can help in that effort.”

Professor Joel Snodgrass, head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, stressed the importance of considering ocean health as a global concern.

“Our oceans are playing, and will continue to play, a big role in food security, and the management of the world’s oceans will be critical to managing carbon, climate change, and the conservation of biological diversity going forward,” he said. “Given Virginia Tech’s developing role as a global land-grant university, we are striving to expose our students to the challenges of managing and conserving our ocean resources and are proud our faculty are engaged in the science surrounding conserving and managing these resources.”

Ferretti previously coordinated “Fish and Ships,” the first in a series of collaborative workshops to bring together researchers and scientists utilizing satellite data to better understand both marine species ranges and the movements of commercial fishing fleets.

Written by David Fleming

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