Marine Animals Entering 2016 Without Enough Protection

Many countries, including the U.S., get a failing grade when it comes to saving marine life.

More than 17,000 marine species across the globe remain largely unprotected, finds the first comprehensive assessment of protected areas coverage -- or lack thereof -- for marine life.

The survey, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that the United States, Canada, and Brazil are the nations with the most species whose ranges lie entirely outside of marine protected areas (MPAs).

Senior author James Watson, of the University of Queensland, told Discovery News that part of the challenge in the United States is that it is the country with the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. EEZs are areas of coastal water and seabed within a certain distance of a country's coastline, to which the country claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling, and other economic activities.

Watson said that something like 13 percent of the planet's waters that fall within EEZs are tied to the United States.

He added: "The other part of the answer is that most states in the U.S. have primarily focused on fisheries management as a way to manage the oceans, rather than (establishing) MPAs."

Marine areas outside of the United States, Brazil, and Canada, such as parts of Australia, also have their conservation problems. The fish in the above image, for example, were spotted at the Ribbon Reefs, in the northern region of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Stephen Sautner, a spokesperson for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which helped prepare the new survey, told Discovery News: "Masses of schooling fish are important prey for many large predators."

For the study, lead author Carissa Klein (of the University of Queensland), Watson and their colleagues looked at the ranges of approximately 17,348 species of marine life. They studied fish, such as the pufferfish above, as well as whales, sharks, and rays. They found that 97.4 percent have less than 10 percent of their range represented in MPAs.

"Globally, we lag behind in creating MPAs," Watson said.

The whitetip reef shark has a wide range, occurring as far west as South Africa and as far east as Central America.

"We found that species with large ranges generally had very low coverage by MPAs," Watson said.

However, "MPAs are not the answer for protecting all species, and this can be the case with large ranging animals," Watson added.

Numerous types of fish, not to mention other marine life, inhabit coral reefs. As a result, conservationists pay particular attention to them when considering regions to protect.

There are other obvious hot spots for conservation, too.

"If breeding/feeding grounds are known for a particular species, and are under threat from an activity that a marine-protected area can stop, then they certainly should be considered in marine-protected area placement," Watson said.

This multicolored stonefish was photographed lingering on a bed of Acropora, a genus of coral.

While many reefs are protected, with other conservation gains made in recent years (such as the establishment of a giant, marine-protected area in the Pacific), there is still a lot of work to be done.

"The increase in the number of marine-protected areas in recent years is encouraging, but most of this increase has come from a few very large MPAs," said study co-author Ben Halpern, of UC Santa Barbara and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

"Those very large MPAs provide important value, but they can be misleading in thinking that biodiversity is being well protected because of them," noted Halpern. "Species all around the planet need protection, not just those in some locations. Our results point out where the protection gaps exist."

This small, patterned sea snail hails from Belize. Marine life occupying smaller ranges, such as the sea snail, can be easier to protect.

Nevertheless, "the process of establishing MPAs is not trivial, as they impact livelihoods," Klein said. "It is essential that new MPAs protect biodiversity while minimizing negative social and economic impacts."

Sautner told Discovery News that this coral cod "is usually seen in caves and under ledges in tropical marine waters."

Even if fish like this are placed in protected regions, there is still the challenge of enforcing those conservation measures.

The enforcement tactics vary per country. Watson said they include everything from community-based enforcement to high tech remote monitoring systems.

Even protection of a single species, such as this brain coral, can lead to a beneficial domino effect. Sautner explained: "Massive brain corals can provide safe shelter (to other species) during storms."

A goal has been set by the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 10 percent of marine biodiversity by the year 2020. The authors of the new survey are still hoping that this modest goal can be met, despite the dismal results of their recent study.

According to Watson, the new survey found that "the majority of species that were considered very poorly represented live in waters under national jurisdictions, highlighting the important role for many nations to better protect biodiversity."

Sautner added that sea turtles like the one above "are vulnerable at all stages of their life cycles."

Species that often become prey for other animals, such as these small reef fish, do what they can to shield themselves from threats. In this case, the fish are hiding in coral thickets.

Coral reefs are often likened to underwater forests. It is estimated that 25 percent of all marine life depends on reefs for protection, habitat, and survival.

Yet another coral reef species is the Hawksbill sea turtle. It is a critically endangered species. The authors of the new survey hope that it and other threatened marine life can be saved.

"Marine conservation is not just about MPAs," Watson said. "It's about a range of conservation mechanisms from land-use management to reduced run-off into the ocean to fisheries management."

"My hope," Watson concluded, "is that individual communities and nations are able to implement the most appropriate strategy to ensure marine biodiversity is better protected and the livelihoods that rely upon biodiversity are improved."