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Our Ocean Conference 2016: Ensuring Effective Enforcement of Marine Protected Areas

Thursday, September 29, 2016
Xiao Recio-Blanco

Xiao Recio-Blanco

Senior Attorney; Director, Ocean Program

At the 2016 Our Ocean Conference, nearly 20 countries announced the creation of new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or the expansion of existing ones. This is an important step in the right direction, but creating new MPAs will not make a significant difference if new and old MPAs are not effectively enforced. Through the release of its report, Legal Tools for Strengthening Marine Protected Area Enforcement: A Handbook for Developing Nations, the Environmental Law Institute’s (ELI’s) Ocean Program is playing its part to assist countries in ensuring that MPAs are effectively implemented and enforced, delivering positive conservation outcomes.

The Third Our Ocean Conference took place on September 15th and 16th in Washington, DC, and was hosted by the U.S. Department of State.  More than 450 attendees from over 90 countries, including 60 foreign and environmental ministers, several heads of state, and numerous scientists, philanthropists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil society leaders, and business executives involved in ocean resources management came together to discuss five pressing issues: sustainable fisheries; combating illegal fishing; conservation and enforcement of MPAs; marine pollution; and the impacts of climate change.

President Obama at the third Our Ocean Conference

President Obama announces a
12,725 square kilometer
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts
Marine National Monument,
the first U.S. marine monument
in the Atlantic Ocean.
Photo courtesy of Xiao Recio-Blanco

More than 130 initiatives were announced at the conference, including the creation of new MPAs or the expansion of existing ones in many counties. Representatives from World Trade Organization countries, including Argentina, Canada, Peru, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the United States, also committed to launching negotiations aimed at prohibiting subsidies that lead to overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.  Specific conservation actions by governments and NGOs were announced as well, such as the establishment of the Safe Ocean Network, a collaboration of 46 governments and organizations (including ELI) convened to share knowledge and coordinate efforts to combat illegal fishing around the world. Together, these announcements are indicative of the momentum building around ocean protection and increased support of ocean conservation. Indeed, nearly 4 million square kilometers of protected areas and $5.24 billion in ocean stewardship was committed at the 2016 conference.

Despite this momentum, two elements remain critical to the success of these well-intended initiatives. First, initiatives aimed at creating new MPAs, especially near-shore, will have to rely heavily on the support of local communities, including artisanal fishers and other sea users. Without local leadership, empowerment, and support, many ocean conservation actions, no matter how well designed, risk failure. Unfortunately, with the exception of the presentation made by Dr. Jorge Torre, Director General of Comunidad Y Bioversidad Asociación Civil (COBI), this fundamental topic remained somewhat overlooked throughout most of the Conference.

Leonardo DiCaprio at the third Our Ocean Conference
Leonardo DiCaprio speaks about the detrimental effects of climate
change he witnessed while filming his documentary
Before the Flood. Photo courtesy of Xiao Recio-Blanco

Second, legal instruments and regulatory frameworks must encourage voluntary compliance and enable effective enforcement. Where there is substantial compliance, limited enforcement resources can be focused on the subset of actors that intentionally or repeatedly violate the law. Achieving a high degree of compliance requires an MPA law that is clear and simple, has the direct involvement of relevant stakeholders, and is understood and respected by the public. In addition, individual MPAs and their implementing regulations must be specifically tailored to their intended goals. And MPAs should be adaptable as conservation needs change and evolve. It is in this context where the work developed by ELI is most relevant.

ELI’s report, Legal Tools for Strengthening Marine Protected Area Enforcement: A Handbook for Developing Nations, was announced at the conference to provide guidance to countries seeking to improve enforcement of their existing MPAs or to create new ones. With its special focus on compliance and enforcement, the Handbook introduces policymakers and legislators to principles necessary for effective MPA enforcement. It offers a variety of legal tools and approaches (including sample legal provisions) that countries may use to implement reforms through targeted domestic legislation, international agreements, or other instruments. ELI hopes the Handbook will become a useful tool for enhancing the enforcement capacity of existing MPAs and for ensuring better enforceability of new MPAs announced at this and future conferences.


All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.