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What Does "Ocean Wilderness" Mean, and Should We Prioritize Its Protection? Experts Respond

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Over the past decade, several large MPAs have been designated in remote offshore areas.  In some of these cases - like Papahānaumokuākea (US), Chagos MPA (UK), the Coral Sea Marine Reserve (Australia), and others - the areas set aside have not been under immediate or significant threat from human use.  There was relatively little extraction of resources occurring, and no adjacent human populations.  The ecosystems were healthy, before and after designation.


This has raised a question: Are these areas truly worthy of these dramatic protection efforts, or are they more a way to dress up relatively uncommercialized tracts of ocean as MPAs?  Some conservation planners have argued the designations are intended more to avoid impacting human activities than to protect ecosystems against those activities.  They say efforts should focus instead on threatened, typically inshore, ecosystems.  (Bob Pressey of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies made this argument regarding Australia's newly designated system of MPAs: http://openchannels.org/node/2437.)


But an uncommercialized tract of ocean could be viewed another way - as relatively pristine marine habitat.  Lately the concept of marine wilderness has appeared more frequently in the MPA conversation.  This is due in part to new research (by Nick Graham and Tim McClanahan, described in this article) showing that remote, unharvested areas tend to have abundant fish life.  It is also due to arguments that marine wilderness areas should be protected for the same reasons terrestrial wilderness typically is: namely, these ecosystems are still intact.  (That argument appears here: http://openchannels.org/node/3230.)


Although the concept of marine wilderness is gaining traction, a common understanding of the term remains hazy.  There is no globally accepted definition.  In this article, we talk with three experts about what the term means to them, and whether we should prioritize protecting remote, healthy marine ecosystems wherever they may be.


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A. Wilderness areas need to be "very large, sparsely populated and fairly intact": Nick Graham


Nick Graham of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Australia) and Tim McClanahan of the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a study of the composition and biomass of fish in the remote Chagos archipelago in the central Indian Ocean.  They found six times more fish in Chagos waters - designated by the UK in 2010 as a 640,000-km2 no-take MPA - than in even the best-managed small MPAs elsewhere in the Indian Ocean.  Their conclusion: large-scale marine wilderness reserves are better for conserving fish than the far more common small, coastal MPAs.  Their findings were published in an article, "The last call for marine wilderness?", in the May 2013 issue of Bioscience (www.coralcoe.org.au/news/scientists-call-for-large-ocean-wilderness-parks).


MPA News:  In your paper, you cite a definition by Russell Mittermaier for wilderness: "large areas (greater than 10,000 km2) that host over 70% intact biodiversity and human densities of five people per km2 or less."  If you wrote your own definition for marine wilderness, would it be the same or different?


Nick Graham:  I think the definition by Mittermaier captures the concept of a very large, sparsely populated and fairly intact area.  However, if I were to alter the definition I would increase the area, as 10,000 km2 seems rather small.  (An area 100 km by 100 km that fits the criteria, but is surrounded by dense human populations and consumption, would seem pretty vulnerable to me.)  The 70% intact biodiversity element is probably a good target, but often very hard to quantify due to shifting baselines etc....  Resource extraction is in some ways captured by the biodiversity measure, but biomass and abundance can also be important measures, particularly in fisheries.  To this end, potential effects of non-residents - e.g., migrant fishers and long-distance operators - should be considered.  The threats to marine resources for example are not limited to local human population densities, but other drivers are also important such as distance to markets, economic development, etc.  This is where formal protection of some of the remaining wilderness areas comes in.


MPA News:  You write that wilderness areas have been widely discussed in the terrestrial conservation literature, whereas the concept of marine wilderness has received scant attention.  Why do you think marine wilderness has received less attention so far?


Graham:  Partly because working in the marine environment can be a lot more challenging, and this is particularly true at large scales.  For example, we have only just gotten to the point in the Indian Ocean where we have good quantitative data on coral reef communities across many countries and a wilderness area to make the comparisons necessary to quantify the effect of this wilderness.  As is often the case, marine science is playing a catch-up game.  I think another reason may be that the focus in the marine environment on smaller MPAs has taken up a lot of the discourse and research effort.  Opportunities for very large marine wilderness MPAs are fairly limited and so the shift in thinking from the smaller MPAs has taken some time.  It should also be noted that work on smaller MPAs is often concentrated on coastlines where biodiversity and fisheries are most at risk, and so this research attention has been critically important.


MPA News: You write in your Chagos paper that it is likely that large wilderness areas encompassing other marine ecosystems will also represent exceptional ecological communities worthy of protection.  Would you recommend that all areas of remaining marine wilderness be protected?


Graham: No, I think it is important to assess different ecosystems and potential wilderness areas on a case-by-case basis.  In some ecosystems very large wilderness areas may not offer more than well-managed fisheries (e.g., if the target species of interest have very fast life histories), or a network of smaller protected areas.  Furthermore, blanket protection may not be the most appropriate policy, and in some cases may receive poor compliance and thus have little effect.  Comparative ecological assessments of potential marine wilderness areas, coupled with appropriate analyses of social drivers and potential governance structures, should be conducted in order to make decisions about protection.


For more information:


Nick Graham, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia. Email: nick [dot] graham [at] jcu [dot] edu [dot] au


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B.  Stewardship of ocean wilderness should be much like that on land: Brad Barr


Brad Barr is the senior policy advisor for the US Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.  In his spare time over the past three years, he completed a Ph.D. degree at the University of Alaska, studying the concept of ocean wilderness.  As part of his dissertation research, he surveyed 250 marine resource managers and scientists in the US and Canada on their thoughts about wilderness and its management.  His remarks here are his alone and do not represent the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.  (A significantly longer and complete interview with Barr is available at http://mpanews.org/Barr.pdf.)


MPA News:  What did you find in your survey of resource managers and scientists?


Brad Barr:  The results of that survey were generally unambiguous.  The respondents believed that wilderness exists in coastal and ocean waters, and that it includes, in a spatial context, the air over the water, water surface, water column, the seabed, and the creatures that live there and their habitats.  Areas that possess wilderness qualities are likely to be located in coastal waters and particularly waters adjacent to upland designated wilderness areas.  Something of a surprise: offshore areas were perceived as less likely to be wilderness.  I think that wilderness, as a human construct, needs to evoke some deeper emotion, some "place attachment" that these remote areas don't seem to satisfy.  They may indeed be remote, and some are subject to threats that might require additional management, but they don't seem to inspire at least the survey respondents to call them "wilderness". 


The survey results further suggested that stewardship of ocean wilderness should be much like that on land, where motorized access and commercial activities are generally prohibited, and that access for recreation is important, but should be appropriately conducted, preserving wilderness values and qualities.  There was also some agreement expressed by the respondents that Indigenous access for culturally significant activities should be given special status.  


MPA News:  As part of your research, you identified the MPAs in North America that have been designated specifically and formally to protect their wilderness characteristics. 


Barr:  This was to better understand how the prevailing North American perception of wilderness had been translated into actual designations.  I found about a dozen areas in the US.  Some of these are generally well known for including wilderness waters - such as Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Everglades National Park, and Pt. Reyes National Seashore - but the others were less familiar.  [Editor's note: Barr's complete list is available at http://mpanews.org/Barr.pdf.]  This inventory and analysis was obviously not "official", and is currently being evaluated by the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service (the two wilderness management agencies with sites in the inventory).  But it clearly identified that ocean wilderness can be, and has been, designated under the (US) Wilderness Act.


MPA News:  In your opinion, what is the best definition for marine wilderness?


Barr:  In 2004 I helped organize a workshop with the WILD Foundation to see if a panel of exerts could craft a consensus definition of ocean wilderness.  This international working group, over two days of deliberation, developed the following definition:


"Areas of the marine environment that are untrammelled and generally undisturbed by human activities and dedicated to the preservation of ecological integrity, biological diversity, and environmental health.  An area of ocean wilderness may provide:


-  Opportunities for quiet appreciation and enjoyment in such a manner that will leave these areas unimpaired for future generations as ocean wilderness; and


-  Continued opportunities for subsistence uses and Indigenous cultural practices."


While the Working Group left the discussion with a number of unresolved issues (including the appropriateness of permitting "recreational fishing", and to what degree an area might be disturbed by human activities and still be worthy of a designation as wilderness under this definition), I thought this definition captured the important link to the language (and spirit) of the US Wilderness Act.  It was also reasonably simple and brief, allowing some room for interpretation as this idea evolved and was translated into practice by the wilderness management agencies.  I would offer this definition as a pretty good one to consider.


MPA News:  Would you recommend that all areas of remaining marine wilderness be protected?


Barr:  I don't believe it is prudent to suggest that "all" of any type of area or habitat be protected, as some places are more important, for one reason or another, than others.  I think that to designate all remaining putative ocean wilderness areas, by any definition, would be a bold, precautionary step, but would alienate many (if not most) ocean users, be subject to low compliance with any regulations that would be put in place to preserve wilderness values and qualities (not to mention ecological integrity and biodiversity), require the expenditure of considerable social and political capital we in the MPA community have fought hard to acquire, and would ultimately only create more "paper parks" (and there are too many of these already).  


With specific regard to new ocean wilderness sites, I believe that it would be terrific to add to the inventory, but only if we specifically recognize the wilderness values and qualities of that place in its stewardship.  Simply to call an area "wilderness" - but not clearly and explicitly address preserving wilderness in the management plans developed for that area - is not wilderness stewardship, but yet another round of trying to use "wilderness" to sell fully-protected marine reserves.  The US and many other nations around the world possess hard-fought and hard-won laws and policies for establishing wilderness, and these statutory authorities should be utilized.  Places we just call wilderness, but don't establish them under these laws and policies - and only pay lip-service to their wilderness qualities and values - not only would ultimately be ineffective in preserving wilderness, but would diminish and de-value the hard work of those who fought tirelessly to create these laws.


For more information:


Brad Barr, University of Alaska, US. Email: bwbarr [at] alaska [dot] edu


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C.  Mapping areas of the ocean no human has seen before: Peter Harris


Peter Harris is an oceanographer with Geoscience Australia.  He is co-leading a team (along with UNEP/GRID-Arendal and Conservation International) to produce a new seafloor geomorphology map for the world ocean, both within and beyond national jurisdictions.  It will be the most accurate, up-to-date map so far of the global seafloor and is likely to include individual formations (various seamounts, trenches, plateaus and more) never before known or visited by humans.  The map is intended to help inform the prioritization of specific high seas areas for management.


MPA News:  With your mapping, you likely are aware of many seafloor formations that no one knew existed before.  Would you consider such areas to be "wilderness"?


Peter Harris:  The new seafloor geomorphology map provides the first global inventory of different feature categories as well as estimates of their areal coverage.  Many of the "features" per se have never been mapped before and most of them have never been quantitatively enumerated or measured.  Furthermore, it is very likely that many features have never been "visited" by humans - that is, they have not been sampled, inspected by video, viewed from a submersible or examined by sonar.  I think such places would indeed qualify as wilderness.


MPA News:  Your map is intended to inform the priority management of areas beyond national jurisdiction.  If you were reasonably confident that a particular area of the seafloor on the high seas had rarely if ever been fished nor otherwise directly impacted by humans, would you recommend it as a priority area for management?


Harris:  There are several practical reasons why it makes sense for society to take steps to conserve and manage representative areas of remaining undisturbed habitat from future human disturbances.  From a scientific and management perspective, such habitats provide valuable baselines for comparison with other sites where activities take place, so that the extent of change (and rates of recovery) can be quantified, and that information can be used to support effective management action now and in the future.  Healthy, intact assemblages of species are more likely to be able to re-colonize following disturbance, and be able to more easily adapt to changes in the deep sea environment associated with anthropogenic global climate change.  Another reason is that undisturbed habitat may harbor an intact assemblage of species, which contain as yet unknown genetic material of interest to medical science, industrial processes, production of biofuels, etc. 


MPA News:  When will the map be published?


Harris:  We are aiming to publish our work by the end of this year.    


For more information:


Peter Harris, Geoscience Australia, c/o UNEP/GRID-Arendal, Norway. Email: petertharris [at] gmail [dot] com


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BOX: Wilderness, naturalness, and the eye of the beholder


In 2003, MPA News reported on the use of "naturalness" as a common criterion in siting new MPAs, generally defined as an area's relative lack of disturbance or degradation by humans (MPA News 4:11).  In that sense, naturalness may not be far off from many people's general concept of wilderness. 


How much of the ocean could be considered undisturbed or undegraded by humans is open to interpretation, though.  The global map of ocean uses by Halpern et al. in 2008 (http://www.aaas.org/) suggested just 3.7% of the global ocean could be considered "very low impact areas" from cumulative human use.  These areas were mostly in polar regions. 


However, it is not unusual for resource managers to describe their protected areas as wilderness, even in cases where significant extractive activity has occurred in the past.  In such cases, the intent may be to reestablish the wilderness character.  The waters around South Africa's remote, sub-Antarctic Prince Edward Islands archipelago, for example, were plundered in the 1990s by illegal fishing for toothfish.  Now the country's newly designated Prince Edward Islands MPA includes a 17,903-km2 no-take zone that is intended to restore the stocks (see this article).  Xola Mkefe, director of coastal and biodiversity conservation in South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs, says, "The no-take zone is definitely a wilderness area."

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