Despite the international distribution of many marine ecosystems, efforts to provide international management plans for them have been slow in coming. Transboundary ecosystems have generally received piecemeal protection at most, with only rare efforts by planners to coordinate conservation efforts across political lines. Ecosystems on the high seas have received virtually no protection, save for the UN-sponsored multilateral agreement to protect Antarctic waters.

The challenges involved in international environmental protection are numerous, with political, legal, and social obstacles. Nonetheless, several recent efforts have emerged with regard to establishing international MPAs. Such efforts indicate what the future might hold for the protection of marine ecosystems.

Challenges to international MPAs

For years, biologists have suggested that in order to maintain and restore biodiversity, coherent systems of protected areas must exist. In the young field of MPA science and management, the creation of a single nation’s MPA network is often difficult enough, as countries struggling to network their marine protected areas can attest. To coordinate the science and management of protected marine habitats between two, four, ten or more nations can be exponentially more difficult.

Many of the same challenges that face the creation of national MPAs also face the creation of international ones — namely, how to site, monitor, enforce, and otherwise manage the areas. But international negotiations can also encounter language barriers and other communications difficulties, higher costs for meetings and scheduling, and concerns over national security, both economic and military. Any plans for high-seas MPAs must address the issue of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which holds the open ocean as a global commons. The high seas are therefore open to all nations, and subject to freedoms of navigation, fly-over, and fishing. These freedoms, unless amended through bilateral or multilateral agreements, would make enforcement of any high-seas MPA difficult.

Management of international MPAs provides its own set of issues. Take Antarctica, whose waters provide perhaps the foremost example of the possibility of international marine protection, as well as the challenges inherent in maintaining that protection. Under the Madrid Protocol, all land and waters southward of 60 degrees south latitude are protected to preserve the region’s wilderness and scientific value. But confusion over seemingly contradictory protection regimes, and questions over jurisdiction by the Antarctic treaty parties, have allowed the continuation of some potentially hazardous actions by visitors, according to Kevin Wood, former ship operations coordinator for the US Antarctic Program. These actions include the incineration of plastics and other materials by research ships at shore.

Differences among nations in treaty interpretation can limit the success of international environmental agreements, said Wood, now a masters candidate at the University of Washington School of Marine Affairs. He blames this in part on “vertical disintegration of policy” — the process of policy reinterpretation and fragmentation as it travels from international fora through various departments of domestic administration and finally to the field. “Often the result at the end of this chain has little in common with the policy objective as originally laid out,” said Wood.

Calls for open-ocean MPAs

Despite the challenges, proponents of international MPAs have continued to push for them. In 1998, biologists Jim Carlton (Williams College, US) and Claudia Mills (Friday Harbor Laboratories, US) wrote that, given the rising pressures on oceans from resource extraction, ocean conservation should include an international system of marine reserves for the open ocean (Conservation BiologyVol. 12, No. 1, pp. 244-7). These reserves would allow no fishing, shipping, or dumping.

Citing an opportunity to be proactive, Carlton and Mills wrote, “Establishing marine reserves on the high seas — regions not yet as direly affected as those coastal or terrestrial reserves adjacent to the major centers of human population — may provide the last opportunity to reach ahead of the destructive waves that accompany human behavior.”

A project to encourage the protection of open-ocean ecosystems has been underway at the IUCN (World Conservation Union) since 1994. The IUCN High Seas Project, led by Maxine McCloskey, has largely consisted of enlisting the support of scientists at international conferences. The project has been hamstrung somewhat by a lack of a funding, said McCloskey, as well as by public impressions that international MPAs can’t be achieved, aren’t necessary, or distract from the protection of coastal ecosystems. She continues to spread the word. “An enormous percentage of the surface of the earth is high seas,” said McCloskey. “Why is nobody looking at them?”

In Germany, an ad hoc group of experts on marine law and seabed science is about to take such a look. Led by Renate Platzoeder, a law professor at the University of Munich Institute for International Affairs, the group is organizing an international workshop on high-seas MPAs for next year. Platzoeder said the workshop will bring together legal experts to discuss possibilities for protecting the open ocean; such possibilities could include amendments to UNCLOS. The German group is noteworthy for its members’ expertise on international ocean issues. Platzoeder has represented Germany in UNCLOS negotiations for several years and published widely on Law of the Sea topics, while other members include the current president of the UN Seabed Council and a top deep-sea oceanographer.

Australia is already moving to secure protection for some seamounts in international waters. At a consultative process in June held to precede the next round of UNCLOS negotiations, the commonwealth’s delegation proposed the protection of seamounts in the Western Indian Ocean in response to the fishing industry’s recent discovery of major orange roughy stocks on seamounts there. Tony Koslow of Australia√≠s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) hopes some protection can be put in place soon to ensure fishery sustainability and protection for seamount fauna.

With no controls in place on fishing these seamounts, said Koslow, “Virtually the only impediment to the rapid destruction of the [orange roughy] resource and the environment is the present poor state of knowledge of the Indian Ocean. It will take some time to adequately map the bottom and find the seamounts. But this is poor protection, indeed, given the current technologies available to carry out seafloor mapping.” In a letter published last month in the journal Nature (Vol. 405, 22 June 2000, pp. 944-7), Koslow warned of the vulnerability of seamount habitats to trawling, due to the highly localized distribution of many seamount species.

Creation of transboundary MPAs

Where there has arguably been the most progress on international MPAs has been in two- or three-nation projects. Last November, the governments of France, Italy, and Monaco jointly declared the creation of a 100,000 sq. km whale sanctuary in the Ligurian Sea, in the northwestern Mediterranean. The sanctuary protects an important summer feeding ground for about 2000 whales and thousands of other cetaceans. Broached in a 1993 letter of intent, the treaty commits the three signatory governments to coordinating monitoring activities, cracking down on pollution, and raising public awareness about the marine mammals and their habitat. According to one NGO, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the sanctuary represents the first time in the northern hemisphere that several countries have established a transboundary marine protected area.

A team of NGOs from three Central American nations is pushing for the creation of a tri-national coastal management program and MPA network in shared waters. The Tri-National Alliance of NGOs for the Conservation of the Gulf of Honduras — formed of nine groups from Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala — has succeeded in getting their governments to talk about fisheries harmonization, according to Will Heyman, marine projects coordinator for the Belize Marine Program of The Nature Conservancy, an Alliance funder. “The Alliance was created after general recognition that the impacts to the basin were received from three countries,” said Heyman, “so the conservation strategies must be viewed at the same scale.”

The three governments are already collaborating on protection of the manatee, a shared endangered species, and Heyman feels this provides a useful entry to other conservation topics. “It’s less important than some of the larger issues, perhaps, but a good starting point for collaboration,” he said. “This [has been] a strategy of the Alliance: start small, get compliance, move larger.” There is no transboundary MPA in place yet in the Gulf, he said. “We’ve learned that this is a slow, laborious, and expensive process, requiring the commitment of many, but all members seem to feel at least satisfied with the growth in understanding — and attention and funding — coming to the area,” he said.

Similar discussions of a multinational MPA network have taken place among the eight Arctic nations. At the Circumpolar Marine Workshop in November 1999, representatives of the Arctic rim countries, indigenous peoples, and NGOs approved a resolution to provide more and better protection of the marine environment, such as through a network of MPAs. The Arctic Council, a multinational organization consisting of ministers from each of the Arctic rim countries, will likely provide the framework for any such circumpolar cooperation on MPAs.

Separate negotiations are ongoing on the creation of two transboundary MPAs between Canada and the US. One proposed MPA — the Gulf of Maine International Ocean Wilderness — would protect a suite of habitats representative of the Gulf of Maine along the eastern marine boundary of the two nations. Formerly referred to as the “Hague Line International Peace Park” (MPA News 1:3), the proposal is supported by several NGOs on both sides of the border. On the nations’ western marine boundary, between British Columbia (Canada) and Washington State (US), a multistakeholder group led by NGOs is pushing for a locally governed, integrated network of MPAs, and has proposed creation of an Orca Pass International Stewardship Area.

Cooperation among governments

For an international MPA to be effective, there must be international agreement on the area’s planning and management. Such agreement is often the most difficult aspect of achieving international environmental protection. For open-ocean MPAs in particular, said McCloskey of the IUCN High Seas Project, the central legal question remains, Which body has the authority to establish, monitor, and enforce such MPAs?

International MPA agreements require cooperation — and sometimes the relinquishment of certain freedoms — among governments. When governments are ready to accept this, opportunities for marine resource protection on the ecosystem scale will follow.

For more information:

Kevin Wood, School of Marine Affairs, University of Washington, 3707 Brooklyn Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98105, USA. E-mail:

Jim Carlton, Maritime Studies Program/Mystic Seaport, P.O. Box 6000, 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, CT 06335, USA. E-mail:

Maxine McCloskey, IUCN High Seas Project, 2829 SW Sunset Blvd., Portland, OR 97201, USA. E-mail:

Renate Platzoeder, Institute for International Affairs, University of Munich, Munich, Germany. E-mail:

Tony Koslow, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Marine Research, GPO Box 1538, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia. E-mail:

Will Heyman, The Nature Conservancy, 62 Front Street, Punta Gorda, Belize. E-mail:

Arctic Council Working Group on Protection of the Marine Environment (John Karau, chair), Marine Environment Division, Environment Canada, 351 St. Joseph Blvd., 12th Floor, Place Vincent Massey, Hull, Quebec K1A 0H3, Canada. E-mail:; Web:

Details on the Gulf of Maine International Ocean Wilderness proposal are available online at The website contains descriptions of habitats, maps, background science, fact sheets, and other information.


Ron Huber, Coastal Waters Project/Task Force Atlantis, 418 Main Street, Rockland, Maine 04841, USA. E-mail:

Details on the proposed Orca Pass International Stewardship Area are available online at


Howard Breen, Georgia Strait Alliance, #201-195 Commercial Street, Nanaimo, BC V9R5G5, Canada. E-mail: