The US is on a roll! Last week, the establishment of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was announced. This 4,913 square mile region off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts is home to a variety of species, including a host of cold-water corals, extinct volcanoes, and vast canyons. The creation of this protected area comes on the heels of last month’s expansion to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, off the Hawaiian coast.
Conservation advocates are praising these landmark decisions (pun totally intended). But why? Is the creation of these marine protected areas really going to save the ocean?
According to a paper published last week, it might.
The study compared the current extinction event we are experiencing (more details below) with mass extinctions of the past. They found that in past extinctions, threatened marine species tended to be small-bodied and lived in the open ocean. Currently, however, the imperiled species are large-bodied (think whales and large fish like tuna and groupers), and tend to be distributed throughout marine ecosystems.
This is an important distinction, leading scientists to believe the current extinction event will be what scientists call a no-analog event – meaning nothing like it has ever occurred in the past. And that makes predicting what will happen next even harder than it already is.
Perhaps even more concerning, these researchers have suggested that large-bodied species have a disproportionate effect on ecosystem functioning.
Wait… what does that mean?
The authors are essentially arguing that large species tend to be at the top of food chains and play important roles in moving nutrients (the elements that the body needs like nitrogen and phosphorus) through food webs and ecosystems. If these are the organisms that will be disproportionately affected, it could hinder the ability of ecosystems to recover.
It seems, then, that the ability to protect these species from extinction could be particularly important. And scientists generally agree that the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs) in areas of particular importance for breeding or feeding is a promising way to protect entire ecosystems.
A 2013 study found that in well-managed MPAs there were twice as many large fish species, five times more fish, and 14 times more sharks than in surrounding areas. Another study in the North Atlantic found that the mean size of lobsters increased 13% and Atlantic cod increased in density and size inside MPAs.
So back to my original question: Is the creation of these marine protected areas really going to save the ocean?
Well, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.