The Pacific islands’ 3 problems with IUCN’s Motion 53 to close 30% of their EEZs

Hawaiian Islands coastline


The world’s largest conservation event opened in Hawaii yesterday [1 September]. It’s a unique opportunity to focus governments and environment stakeholders on the urgent need for conservation solutions.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Conservation Congress is the world’s main authority on the conservation of species. It brings together more than 10,000 participants from around the globe, including leaders from governments, environmental and conservation groups, businesses, UN agencies, and indigenous peoples.

A place where they will discuss and decide on solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental and development challenges.

The Congress will consider about 99 motions, spanning everything from clean water to imperiled species to national parks. If passed they will be presented to the United Nations Convention of Biological (CBD), which most Pacific island countries are party to.


Of all the motions being considered this week, one of them, Motion 53, will be a major concern to Pacific island countries and territories (PICTs). Especially the eight Territories who are not members of IUCN and therefore have no voice in the Congress.

Motion 53 is about the establishment of Marine Protected Areas. It encourages countries to designate at least 30 per cent of their national waters as marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2030 and to support the establishment of MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdictions.

The call comes from scientists who say that the earth’s oceans which provide half of the oxygen we breathe are dying because of overfishing, climate change and pollution. To stop the oceans collapsing, their analyses suggest that conserving 30 per cent of the oceans now will be enough to regenerate the rest.

Currently, the Convention of Biological Diversity is calling for 10 per cent of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2020. But those pushing for Motion 53 argue that 10 per cent is not enough.

Although PICTs are doing their bit in establishing MPAs, they would have three major concerns on the implications of Motion 53, especially the voiceless PICTs.


If Motion 53 is passed, then the IUCN will promote to the CBD an increased call for 30 per cent of these small Pacific territories’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to be closed off.

That could cause the collapse of their economies. A major concern which they are not able to voice at the IUCN Congress as they are not members.

Their plight is backed-up by Federated States of Micronesia’s Ms Suzanne Gallen. “The IUCN proposal, if endorsed by CBD, would indeed disrupt small struggling Pacific economies, particularly those who depend a great deal on fisheries,” FSM’s National Oceanic Resource Management Authority, Chief of Statistics, Compliance & Technical Projects told Pacific Guardians.

“As such, voices of people this ban will affect need to be heard.”

She emphasized, “I echo the sentiment that the motion would be counter productive to established management practices for highly migratory species. RFMO’s with competence over these fish stocks should be utilized to conserve species of interest. Anything to the contrary would undermine existing work and practices in determining appropriate management measures under their competence.”

However, Ms Gallen also sees merit in the MPA approach but for a much lower closure percentage.

“I see merit in the closure, otherwise more species of tuna and other bycatch will become further examples of tragedies of the commons. In fact, the FSM is already considering a similar ban, although a much smaller percentage, which is currently pending in Congress (see C.B. 19-53).”


The second concern for PICTs is that results from current MPAs as conservation tools do not justify such an increased closure percentage. Ms Gallen has already detailed where it is counter productive to current management practices.

Another is from Graham Edgar, a professor of marine ecology and conservation science at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, and lead author of a 2014 paper in Nature considered the gospel on effective marine reserves. He said, “All too frequently, the necessary assessment and evaluation end once the MPA is declared.

“And that’s very ineffective and potentially dangerous to assume that it’s achieving the goals.”

In their study, Prof Edgar and his colleagues identified five attributes that set effective MPAs apart from nominal ones. They are remembered by the acronym NEOLI: no take, enforced, older than a decade, larger than 39 square miles, and isolated by deep water or sand.

Together, the authors say, these characteristics deliver a powerful boost to population, size, and biodiversity of fish, including sharks, which help maintain the balance of the entire food web.

However, out of the 87 MPAs the authors studied around the world, only nine had as many as four or five of the NEOLI features.

Results so far show that only about 10 per cent of existing MPAs have achieved a substantial recovery of fish stocks. Even if the CBD’s current target of protecting 10 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2020 is achieved, that would mean a total recovery rate of just 1 percent.

Hence the valid concern by PICTs, that putting up 30 per cent of their fisheries for such a low conservation return does not justify the economic revenue from their EEZs that they will be asked to give up.

Another flaw in the increased MPA argument is that the location of marine protected areas can depend on factors that have little to do with ecological best practices.

Around the world, only about 4 per cent of coastal and marine areas have some form of official protection, and the process for assigning and safeguarding them is erratic and often ambiguous.

Bob Pressey, a marine scientist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, who has examined the issue, noted that after studying the placement of marine parks around Australia, he found that many were positioned to avoid conflict — favoring areas that are remote or unappealing to fishing interests and oil and gas exploration.

“We are using up limited options by reserving the bits that don’t need protection while others get trashed,” he says. “That’s not cause for celebration.”


The third concern is the amount of resources required to maintain and enforce the MPA.

Rules and regulations can be devised, species that are doing good or bad can be identified, and critical habitats pinpointed. But unless these natural resources can be safeguarded through enforcement, people can still do what they want to.

In Florida for example, the ecological reserve that includes the highly successful ‘Riley’s Hump’ is vigorously policed by the Coast Guard, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and NOAA.

Without such enforcement, the ocean’s assets disappear.

That’s what’s happening in Jamaica where pollution, overfishing, thoughtless development, and corruption have devastated not just its fisheries but also its coral reefs, only 8 percent of which remain alive, and its tourism, which accounts for 25 percent of the country’s jobs.

It is highly unlikely that Pacific countries and territories will have the resources to patrol and enforce the proposed 30% of their EEZ set aside.

And this highlights why the economic impacts of such an increase on PICTs is just not justified as the conservation return would be minimal compared to the efforts rendered.

Charles Hufflet of the Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association, told Radio New Zealand earlier this week that IUCN’s proposal would be devastating for the region’s domestic tuna industry.

“So the concern is the small island nations, who have no voice in the IUCN will suddenly find the IUCN have gone to the Convention of Biological Diversity and said we are going to close off 30 percent of your zone.

“That would collapse the economies of the island states and they are fearful that they have no voice in promoting this,” said Hufflet.

Hufflet agreed with Ms Gallen saying the measure would be counter productive to established management practices for the highly migratory pelagic tuna species.

He said it would only protect fish while they were within Marine Protected Areas and allow them to be overfished elsewhere.

The concern for PICTs is that IUCN’s Motion 53 is a lose-lose scenario for them.


American Samoa, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia, Northern Mariana Islands, Pitcairn, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna.

The Pacific islands’ 3 problems with IUCN’s Motion 53 to close 30% of their EEZs – Pacific Guardians