Do ocean sanctuaries really work?

Oceans are massive and, unlike most places on land, don’t really have borders. Animals, water and (sadly) pollution all move freely beneath the waves. So can ocean sanctuaries really protect fish, whales and other marine creatures? Here are four protected areas from around the world to show how they can make a huge difference.


Ocean sanctuaries – think of them like national parks at sea – woud give marine life a chance to recover from the threats from industrial fishing, drilling and mining. But with only 1% of international waters under some kind of protection, how do we know they work?

Fortunately, we have evidence from these examples around the world, which show just how successful ocean sanctuaries can be.

1. Monterey Bay, California

Monterey Bay, south of San Francisco, is an enormous conservation success story. Fishing and hunting in these coastal waters drove some of its wildlife to the very brink of extinction. But, since the National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1992, the seas and their wildlife have bounced back in a phenomenal way. Now they’re home to playful sea lions, majestic pelicans and cute sea otters, all thriving on the rich waters full of underwater kelp forests.

Monterey Bay is also a global hotspot for whale-watching. Its food-laden waters attract migrating whales all year round, from splashy crowd-pleasing humpbacks to the biggest of them all, the gigantic blue whale. Ecotourism and wildlife watching has given a new reason to protect this special place.

2. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii

Covering over 1.5 million square kilometres, this massive ocean sanctuary in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was created by President George W Bush in 2006, and extended further by his successor Barack Obama – a fantastic display of leadership in ocean protection from both leaders.

A Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtle nap in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

A Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtle nap in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument © Mark Sullivan / NOAA

At the time, this was the largest marine protected area in the world and it’s home to over 7,000 marine species – one in four of which are unique to the Hawaiian archipelago. This sanctuary gives refuge and protection to green sea turtles, the world’s most endangered duck, endangered Hawaiian monk seals, millions of seabirds, and coral reefs, as well as significant native Hawaiian cultural sites.

Included in this sanctuary is the famous remote coral island of Midway Atoll, a vital nesting site for thousands of ocean-wandering albatrosses.

3. Lamlash Bay, Scotland

Good things come in small packages – in this case one square mile of protection. Lamlash Bay might not be world-famous yet, but its protected area, or no-take zone, was hard-fought for and won by years of community campaigning.

The view across Lamlash Bay in Arran, Scotland

The view across Lamlash Bay in Arran, Scotland © Mike Peel

The islanders of Arran lobbied politicians tirelessly, undertook scientific studies, chatted to visiting tourists, and fought against vested interests to get the protected area created in beautiful Lamlash Bay. The rich sheltered waters in the bay are home to a wide variety of delicate seafloor plants and animals, which depend on beds of maerl, an odd type of hard seaweed that grows in the bay. The islanders knew that, to protect these maerl beds and the octopus, scallops and fish that live amongst them, it was crucial to stop the area being dredged by heavy fishing gear.

Today, the impacts of the Arran community are being felt farther away as their example of grassroots campaigning serves as a lesson for politicians and other communities elsewhere.

4. Ross Sea, Southern Ocean

Part of the Antarctic Ocean, the Ross Sea is home to orcas, penguins and seals. In 2017, this area finally became a protected sanctuary, giving some of the Antarctic’s wildlife a safe haven to feed, breed and thrive.

Adélie penguins crossing sea ice in the Southern Ocean

Adélie penguins crossing sea ice in the Southern Ocean © Greenpeace / Jiri Rezac

What if there were ocean sanctuaries everywhere?

These sanctuary success stories are a great reminder of what’s possible, but apart from the Ross Sea, they’re all in within countries’ national waters. Meanwhile, most of the oceans beyond national boundaries are still unprotected. But now we have the opportunity to do so much more.

Scientists have drawn up a bold rescue plan for our oceans – and it’s brilliantly simple. We cover the planet in ocean sanctuaries, putting a third of the seas off-limits to fishing, mining, drilling and other destructive industries.

Governments have started work on a Global Ocean Treaty at the UN, and if they get it right it will give us the legal tools we need to start creating these new ocean sanctuaries. And if the plan goes ahead, it’ll be one of the biggest conservation efforts in human history, creating millions of square kilometres of new protected areas.

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