Negotiations Underway at United Nations for Marine Protected Areas

A.J. Rohn


The United Nations is now developing a set of regulations for ocean waters beyond 200 miles from national boundaries, outside exclusive economic zones.

Although regulations exist against resource extraction on these waters, conservation rules and marine protected areas will be new if and when they become binding, a few years down the line.

A recent study published in Conservation Letters by Callum Roberts, Bethan O’Leary, and other researchers at York University found that marine conservation goals will not be met with the current United Nations commitments to protecting 10% of ocean habitats, especially without these proposed open sea protected areas.

A photo of a white coral taken underwater.
Photograph of a reef off Islamorada, Florida, where colonies of “blade fire coral” that “bleached,” or lost their symbiotic algae. Due to the extremely warm ocean temperatures during the summer of 2014, both hard and soft corals lost their symbiotic algae—all throughout the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. Photo: Kelsey Roberts, USGS, public domain.

Both fisheries and bioprospecting, looking for biological resources for pharmaceutical and other product development, ­put marine life at risk and are huge markets that are frequently discussed in marine conservation talks.

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Although some argue that the marine protected areas may lead to further exploitation of resources beyond their protection, these designations will have an immediate effect in conservation in many parts of the ocean.

A map showing marina protected areas with labels in Northern California.
Marina protected areas in the North Coast area of California. Map: California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), public domain.

The study by York researchers backs up previous recommendations for 30% protection, and notes that only 6% of the ocean is set to be protected now.

The paper looks into 144 past studies done with various goals in mind and finds that the 30% protection mark best satisfies not only biodiversity and biogeographical concerns, like connectivity of the areas, but also the need to conserve economic production and consider all of the parties that will be affected by these changes.

The designated 6% of open seas have not yet been protected, so the 10% goal seems far away. However, trends in marine protection are very positive and the 30% goal can be reached.

A photo of two sand dollars side by side on a beach.
Benthic animals like the common sand dollar are being impacted by ocean warming. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Watch for updates in the current United Nations negotiations and the relationship between bioprospecting and intellectual property rights as protected by the Convention on Biological Diversity from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit over the course of the next few years.

Also expect extensive research to be published on marine conservation, fisheries, and bioprospecting and intellectual property rights in the meantime.


Cressey, D. (2016). Negotiations to tame marine Wild West beginNature532(7597), 18.

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About the author
A.J. Rohn
A.J. is a recent graduate of the Geography and Environmental Studies programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a passion for writing and interests in areas ranging from ecology to geosophy to geopolitics. He enjoys the geography of Wisconsin, be it the north woods or city life in Madison. He loves to read research papers in geography, books by scholars like Yi-Fu Tuan and Bill Cronon (both at UW-Madison), as well as classic fiction writers like Thomas Pynchon and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is very much inspired by the work of all the people he encountered in Madison’s geography department, so expect a wide range of topics when reading his articles here.