Editor’s note: Trevor Ward is an adjunct senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia. Graham Edgar is an associate professor at the University of Tasmania. Hugh Possingham is professor of Mathematics and professor of Ecology at the University of Queensland.

By Trevor Ward, Graham Edgar, and Hugh Possingham

With the recent international impetus to increase the extent of MPAs in the world’s oceans, including the 2012 target of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a number of systems have been developed to monitor and evaluate progress toward global and national MPA targets. The latest example of these is the report card issued by the Living Oceans Society (LOS), which compares progress in Canada, the U.S., and Australia in implementing MPAs in their federal waters (www.livingoceans.org/programs/mpa/report_card). It was mentioned in the October 2008 MPA News.

The LOS report card gives Australia an “A” grade for its perceived excellent MPA achievements. We disagree with the assessment on two main grounds. First, the criteria used to underpin the gradings are inadequate. Second, the LOS report card fails to recognize that a considerable set of Australia’s biodiversity falls within state jurisdiction. Irrespective of their jurisdiction, many Australian MPAs offer very limited protection for biodiversity (they still allow most forms of fishing, for example). We are not able to comment here on the appropriateness of the gradings for Canada or the U.S.

The LOS assessment is based on four criteria: mathematics (area of declared MPAs in relation to the area of ocean), economics (funding for implementation), law (laws, policies and regulations in place), and geography (the proportion of each major ocean region protected within MPAs).

The mathematics criterion assessing areal extent as a proportion of an ocean region is not appropriate as a stand-alone criterion for MPAs. It does not include the representativeness of included habitats/ecosystems, nor the level of protection (zoning) of the areas that are included. Australia has declared some large areas of marine parks. But in the most recent MPA design process (the South East Region), mainly non-representative areas of deep water have been declared as no-take zones. Almost none (<0.5%) of the high-biodiversity continental shelf areas of the SE Region were included in the MPA system at high levels of protection (www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/southeast/pubs/southeast-map.pdf). The zoning fails to meet basic regional MPA design principles of extent, representation, and protection. Indeed, consider the IUCN’s new definition of protected areas [see the lead article in this issue], where any use of natural resources in a protected area must be sustainable and applied as a means to achieve nature conservation. In that light, it is now debatable whether the majority (130,000 km2 – 57% of the area) of the SE Region MPAs merit classification as marine protected areas, or if they should contribute to Australia’s global MPA target.

The LOS assessment of Australia’s MPA performance is also flawed because it fails to consider the performance of the States in establishing effective MPAs. The inshore waters controlled by the States (the “coastal waters”), comprising about 4.6% of Australia’s marine jurisdiction, is where much of Australia’s highly-valued biodiversity resides. But this biodiversity is very poorly represented in zones of high protection in Australian MPAs.

We consider that progress in the design and declaration of effective MPAs throughout the 14 million km2 of Australia’s claimed marine jurisdiction is limited. This is despite the excellent achievements in two of Australia’s coral reef icons (the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef) and the major reserves at Macquarie Island and at Heard and McDonald Islands (sub-Antarctic region). At a global scale it is depressing that Australia’s mediocre progress in MPA design and declaration is held by LOS and its partners to be aspirational.

Despite the poor performance in the SE Region, we are hopeful that the new government will adopt systematic conservation planning for the ongoing declaration of marine reserves in federal waters. However, this has yet to be demonstrated and, for now, we are reluctant to give Australia a pass grade on any MPA scorecard until we can see if the current initiatives deliver highly protected MPAs that represent the full variety of marine life. Only then could Australia’s efforts in MPA design be considered to represent a standard that other nations should emulate.

For more information:

Trevor Ward, University of Western Australia, Perth, WA, Australia. E-mail: ward.t@segs.uwa.edu.au

BOX: Response from the Living Oceans Society

Editor’s note: Kate Willis Ladell and Jennifer Lash of the Living Oceans Society provide the following response to Ward, Edgar, and Possingham (above):

“The purpose of the MPA Report Card was to grade Canada on its performance in four basic subjects with respect to MPA establishment that could be compared with the performance of other countries. In many instances this resulted in trying to compare apples and oranges, and coarse metrics were all that could be compared. The result of the comparative nature of the report card meant that grades were awarded on a curve, and due to Canada’s poor performance in almost all subjects, Australia’s performance did indeed appear to be stellar in comparison. Trevor Ward and his colleagues therefore offer a fair critique (and we agree that it is depressing) that just because Canada is underperforming does not necessarily mean that Australia is outperforming. The takeaway message from this exercise should be that we are all trying to do what is best for the planet by establishing representative networks of MPAs that offer adequate protection for biodiversity. Most countries – Canada and Australia included – need to do more.”

For more information: Kate Willis Ladell, Living Oceans Society, Vancouver, BC, Canada. E-mail: kwladell@livingoceans.org