When you’re close to hitting bottom, there’s a whole lot more room for success. This appears true with regard to a long-held belief about the benefits of marine reserves, protected areas where fishing of many species is illegal: the commonly cited idea that the reserves provide spillover benefit to neighboring fisheries may only be true when that fishery is poorly managed. In other words, if you’ve already screwed up the situation pretty badly, the well-managed situation next door will help you out. If the fishery is well-managed, though, the benefit is likely minimal.
A number of previous studies have banged the Marine Protected Area (MPA) spillover drum: this one, this one, and this one, for example. The general idea is that those protected fish in one area will wander over the invisible lines into the non-protected areas, helping to replenish fishery stocks. The new study used modeling of a theoretical fishery and neighboring reserve to see in what circumstances the reserve provides any benefit to the fishery.
The modeling shows that it is really only when a fishery is being badly mismanaged that there is any benefit from the MPA. Consider two fisheries, one where the fishing “effort” is perfectly matched to produce the maximum sustainable yield, and one where the “effort” is allowed to badly surpass that line and is thus close to extinction. The well managed example will get no benefit at all from the MPA, since the system is already fished sustainably and to equilibrium. In fact, the authors write that “reserves will generally negatively impact yield for well managed fisheries.”
For poorly managed fisheries, where excess effort beyond that sustainable threshold is allowed, there is indeed some benefit. This makes sense intuitively, in that it seems more likely for an abundance of fish in an MPA to drift into an area less densely populated by that same fish. The authors do point out that even in well managed fisheries, a next-door MPA won’t guarantee a negative effect because there are often catch limits below the maximum sustainable yield as a sort of buffer.
So why have earlier studies claimed to find benefit from MPAs? In several cases in the Mediterranean, the total fishery had been “severely depleted,” which fits with the modeling results here. The same was true in other studies from Africa and Asia, “where the fisheries in question were over-exploited and where there was limited application and/or enforcement of standard fisheries management controls.”
The take-home here is that there isn’t any substitute for solid management of a fishery from the start. MPAs are great, but the ancillary benefits that fall outside the MPA’s boundaries aren’t going to manifest unless we’re really bad at everything else. For now, the authors say that means the messaging has to change: “We contend that it is misleading for governments to promote reserves on the basis of net spillover benefit in the context of well-managed fisheries.” - Dave Levitan | September 9 2014
Source: Buxton CD, Hartmann K, Kearney R, et al (2014). When is spillover from marine reserves likely to benefit fisheries? PLoS One, 9 (9) e107032. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0107032
A new study reports that an expansion of marine protected areas is needed to protect fish species that perform key ecological functions. According to investigators from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other organizations, previous efforts at protecting fish have focused on saving the largest numbers of species, often at the expense of those species that provide key and difficult-to-replace ecological functions.
Many vital ecological functions of ocean ecology are performed by fish species that also are food for millions of people. This study uncovers a significant problem: the world's most ecologically valuable fish communities are currently vulnerable and are being missed by the world's current network of marine protected areas. If these tropical fish populations and the ecological services that they provide are to be ensured, say the authors, then the world's existing marine protected area network must be expanded. The paper appears in the current online edition ofEcology Letters.
"The recognition that all species are not the same and that some play more important and different roles in ocean ecology prompted this new investigation. The study was expected to identify regions with vulnerable fish populations, something that has been sidetracked by the past species richness focus," said Dr. Tim McClanahan, WCS Senior Conservationist and a co-author of the study. "If you lose species with key functions, then you undermine the ability of the ocean to provide food and other ecological services, which is a wake up call to protect these vulnerable species and locations. Our analysis identifies these gaps and should provide the basis to accelerate the protection of ocean functions."
The authors of the study compiled a global database on tropical coastal fish populations from 169 locations around the world, focusing on species occurring in 50 meters of water or less. The team compared these data with distribution maps for 6,316 tropical reef fish species. Human threats such as fishing, pollution, and climate change were also included in the analyses.
What the authors found was that many areas with threatened but functionally important fish were found outside of existing marine protected areas. Also, the study examined other vulnerabilities such as taxonomic sensitivity (the number of threatened species in a fish assemblage or community) and functional sensitivity (the number of functions in danger of being lost because of external threats).
From a regional perspective, the analysis revealed that species richness "hotspots" are located in the Indo-Australian Archipelago and the Caribbean. Species-rich areas for short-ranged fish were located in peripheral zones in the Atlantic as well as the Indo-Pacific.
Areas of high vulnerability included the coastal waters of Chile, the eastern tropical Pacific, and the eastern Atlantic Ocean, areas where comparatively few fish species perform vital environmental functions with few or no redundancies or species that fill similar roles.
"Protecting the ecological services that fish populations provide for coastal habitats is as important as protecting wildlife species themselves," said Dr. Caleb McClennen, Executive Director of WCS's Marine Program. "This decision theory framework can help marine managers make recommendations about where to place marine protected areas that expand and protect the ocean's ability to provide key services."
The above story is based on materials provided by Wildlife Conservation Society.Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
Marine protected areas inadequate for protecting fish and ocean ecology, study finds
Por José Anazagasty Rodríguez
Una evaluación del sistema socio-ecológico de La Parguera requiere del conocimiento producido por expertos de varias disciplinas, incluyendo por supuesto las ciencias sociales. Pero si bien ese sistema ha sido estudiado desde diversas disciplinas los esfuerzos para apiñar todo ese conocimiento son escasos. People, Habitats, Species and Governance: An Assessment of the Socio-Ecological System of La Parguera de Manuel Valdés Pizzini y Michell Schärer Umpierre es justamente uno de esos pocos casos. Su reporte reúne de forma efectiva una tremenda cantidad de información proveniente de multitudinarias fuentes y disciplinas académicas. Es por ello un ejercicio multidisciplinario valioso. Y mejor aún, los autores incluyeron el conocimiento local, el de aquellos sujetos cuya cotidianidad y subsistencia están atadas a La Parguera, los pescadores, entre otros.
Aparte de proveer una síntesis de diversos estudios los autores proveen una descripción cuidadosa y detallada de la ecología de La Parguera, uno que toma en cuenta las complejas interacciones físicas, biológicas y sociales del lugar. Como explican ellos mismos:
The report documents –through a variety of sources— the main characteristics of the ecosystem at La Parguera. The ecosystem of La Parguera is defined as a complex mosaic of habitat types extending from the hilltops in the watershed to the abyssal depths beyond the insular platform and all the species that inhabit these. This geographical area includes habitats of great value and unique ecological features, such as: dry forests, salt marshes, mudflats, mangroves, bioluminescent bays, seagrass beds, macroalgal beds, pelagic waters, and well developed, extensive coral reefs and emergent keys. It is important to keep in mind that the ecosystem concept implies the complex interactions between the different elements that often rely on relationships and ecological functions that are dynamic and respond to environmental changes.
El reporte también provee, basado en toda esa información, un modelo de las interacciones físicas, biológicas y humanas en La Parguera. Ese modelo fue construido considerando las condiciones del sistema y las causas sociales y ambientales de los cambios en esas condiciones a través del tiempo. Los autores también examinaron las respuestas de diversos actores sociales a esos cambios.
Además de ofrecer una descripción y un modelo del sistema socio-ecológico de La Parguera, el reporte ofrece un marco de referencia para el desarrollo de estrategias de conservación y manejo apropiadas para el mismo. El desarrollo de un plan de manejo y conservación es indudablemente necesario, esto porque penosamente La Parguera ha sido afectada profundamente por el deterioro ambiental, uno intensificado por la actividad antropogénica allí. Su detrimento se manifiesta en la perjudicada calidad de sus aguas, la adversa salud de sus arrecifes, en el mal estado de sus yerbales, y en el quebranto de su biodiversidad, todas condiciones discutidas por los autores. Otros indicadores de ese deterioro son los altos niveles de contaminación del sistema, la creciente sedimentación del sistema acuático, el progresivo blanqueo y decoloración de los corales, la creciente acidificación de las aguas, y la enfermedad de las plantas marinas. Es necesario entonces detener el deterioro de tan importante sistema socio-ecológico. Pero hacerlo requiere de un buen manejo ambiental, uno fundamentado en un modelo minucioso de la ecología del lugar, objetivo logrado de los autores de People, Habitats, Species and Governance.
Para los autores, uno de los principales determinantes de la calidad ambiental del sistema socio-ecológico de La Parguera, aparte de la actividad humana, es el cambio climático. Pero el cambio climático es en gran medida un derivado de la actividad humana en el planeta. De hecho, uno de los aciertos, y también una de las más importantes aportaciones de People, Habitats, Species and Governance es su destaque del impacto antropogénico en La Parguera. Es precisamente por ello que los autores lo tratan como un sistema socio-ecológico, un conjunto de elementos complejo y cambiante en el que estos elementos—humanos y no humanos—interactúan. Pero es indudable que los elementos humanos, y por ello sociales y culturales, son la causa primordial del deterioro de La Parguera. Esto hace necesaria e ineludible, plantean los autores, la integración de la dimensión humana al estudio, descripción y modelaje de La Parguera. Lo es no solo para entender y explicar la ecología y estado del sistema socio-ecológico sino además para contener su deterioro.Como explican los autores:
How to describe the ecosystem of La Parguera to the uninitiated? What are the key elements of that ecosystem, if the objective is to construct an integrated view, and an assessment of the habitats and the biodiversity? The answer to that question is to provide a historical overview of nature and humans in the context of La Parguera. That is, to incorporate the ‘human dimension’ into the process. It is through the eyes of those in close contact with the ecosystem (scientists, mariners, fishers, anglers, farmers, policy makers and residents) that we build our conceptualization of an ecosystem. Information on the goals and objectives for the protection of La Parguera, and the priorities and potential actions for the conservation of the biodiversity and the habitats were derived from the different documents, actions, texts and positions expressed by the stakeholders in a number of media and events. That information was mined by our team, in some cases analyzed and reformulated.
La huella antropogénica en la transformación histórica de La Parguera en nuestra historia es indiscutible. Y las actividades humanas en La Parguera son muchas. Como indican los autores:
Changes in the ecosystem of La Parguera is due, historically, to a number of processes, namely: intensive agricultural activities (sugar and coffee plantations), coastal development and construction (of marine infrastructure, subdivisions and single lot housing), past industrial activities to the east (the dredging of coastal habitats, and the construction and operation of the Commonwealth Oil Refining Company (CORCO), recreational and commercial fishing, and recreational activities, among other pressures. From Guánica to Ponce, the conversion of forested land (on a large-temporal scale) into agricultural, urban and industrial uses is responsible for the increase in patterns of water turbidity. The Socio-Ecological System of La Parguera is also affected by global processes, such as ocean acidification and climate change that remain to be studied in detail.
Estas actividades ocurren en el contexto de las relaciones ecológicas entre diversos actuantes, humanos y no humanos. No obstante, las relaciones entre los actantes humanos en su lucha por estructurar las relaciones con la naturaleza y entre ellos en La Parguera son casi siempre determinantes. Son estas últimas, continuamente circulando entre el conflicto y la cooperación, las que precisamente, y a lo largo de la historia, han constituido, ordenado y producido material y culturalmente el sistema socio-ecológico de La Parguera, ya sea como “bosque insular,” “reserva natural,” “área de planificación especial,” y “santuario marino,” entre otras. Estas transformaciones, identificadas y examinadas por los autores, demuestran que la organización del sistema socio-ecológico de La Parguera es entonces emergente, atada fundamentalmente a la actividad humana. Esto no significa que el sistema es dominado por los humanos; es moldeado por ellos pero está muy lejos de ser controlado en términos absolutos.
Desviándome un poco de los conceptos utilizados por los autores quiero agregar a sus planteamientos que cada una de las designaciones y formaciones del sistema socio-ecológico ha sido el resultado de la “estabilización” de las relaciones entre esos actantes humanos. Estas se estabilizan, relativamente hablando, cuando los actantes humanos consienten una organización y administración particular del sistema socio-ecológico, lo que envuelve la adaptación del mismo a intereses particulares. Claro, que todo esto envuelve a su vez la adaptación de los actantes mismos a la nueva configuración del sistema socio-ecológico. Dicha estabilidad, conjetural y voluble, no es siempre, y quizás nunca, producto de un consenso enteramente voluntario y mucho menos sinérgico. La conformación de los actantes es producto de la configuración de poder entre los diversos participantes, una alineación que en el caso de los actantes humanos en La Parguera es como demuestran Manuel Valdés Pizzini y Michell Schärer Umpierre mediada por diferencias sociales, entre ellas las diferencias de clase.
Debemos entonces entender La Parguera como una formación emergente de desigualdad ambiental. Allí los costos y beneficios ambientales de la actividad socio-ecológica son distribuidos de forma desigual. Y como demuestran los autores de People, Habitats, Species and Governance son los pobres, particularmente los pescadores y los agricultores del área, los más afectados y marginados en La Parguera. Su acceso a los recursos importantes, analizado en el contexto de la economía política del lugar, es limitado y evidentemente desigual. También lo son sus oportunidades para participar del proceso de toma de decisiones. People, Habitats, Species and Governance apunta hacia la importancia del estudio de las desigualdades ambientales de La Parguera. Ofrece además un excelente estudio de caso de los pescadores y la pesca en el lugar, el que debe considerarse en el desarrollo que cualquier plan de manejo y conservación.
Reducir o resolver la desigualdad ambiental en La Parguera , que insisto debería ser cardinal a cualquier plan de conservación, restauración y manejo ambiental, requiere atención a la forma en que los recursos del sistema socio-ecológico son extraídos, convertidos en bienes comerciales, circulados y distribuidos, así como consumidos y desperdiciados. Claro, también requiere atención a las formas diversas en que esos recursos son significados por los diversos actores sociales, construcciones parte de las estrategias utilizadas por estos en sus negociaciones para determinar los usos de La Parguera así como su gobernanza y ordenación. Y esto está unido al legado social de la actividad humana—el efecto material y cultural de acciones pasadas—y la memoria social—el conocimiento y percepción local del ecosistema basado en experiencias pasadas ligadas a la mencionada herencia socio-cultural. Atención a ese legado y memorias es otro gran acierto del reporte de Manuel Valdés Pizzini y Michell Schärer Umpierre. Al considerar esas memorias y legados los autores apuntan hacia y examinan de forma efectiva la conexión importante entre estas y las relaciones con el ambiente que allí ocurren. Al hacerlo apuntan también hacia el estudio de la gobernanza, esas diversas relaciones públicas y privadas dirigidas a resolver los problemas de La Parguera y producir los recursos, oportunidades y límites necesarios para ello. Y esas relaciones, recursos, oportunidades y limites también son mediadas por legados y memorias.
Lamentablemente, como subrayan los autores, no existe aún un plan de manejo ambiental adecuado y apropiado para La Parguera, esto a pesar de la interesante y compleja historia de los esfuerzos de conservación y manejo de ese sistema socio-ecológico. Prestarle mucha más atención a la dimensión humana del conocido sistema socio-ecológico, como hacen y recomiendan los autores, es un paso en la dirección correcta, uno indiscutiblemente necesario y urgente. Y el paso debe estar informado por People, Habitats, Species and Governance, un reporte digital que puede adquirirse gratis en la Internet.
El reporte es una contribución única, un mapa valiosísimo para el desarrollo de estrategias de manejo y conservación apropiadas para La Parguera, un manejo que tome en cuenta la dimensión socio-cultural del sistema, incluyendo las necesidades de los diversos actores envueltos, especialmente las de los pescadores y los agricultores, grupos tremendamente marginados de la toma de decisiones con respecto al sistema socio-ecológico. Además, sus memorias y su legado no deben ser ignorados sino convertidos en un elemento fundamental de cualquier plan de manejo, restauración y conservación de La Parguera. La tarea no es sencilla pero concluyentemente apremiante. Como plantean Felix A. Martínez y Michael J. Dowgiallo en su prólogo al reporte:
Restoring La Parguera will not be easy. The threats of overfishing, land based pollution, and recreational overuses, superimposed against the background of natural variability and climatic change, remain severe. However, we now know that La Parguera is still bathed almost constantly by clean oceanic waters that bring with them a supply of larvae of many of the species that were taken for granted not so long ago. If the insults are removed or minimized, the seeds of recovery are there. It is now up to us, the human dimension, to set aside differences and personal interests and focus on the one true goal, bringing the Parguera of our memories back. The unknowns are daunting and challenges will be many, but failure to act should not be an option.
Y los secundo. La inactividad no es una opción.
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua and Barbuda
The twin-island Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda has imposed new regulations to establish five marine sanctuaries protecting 33 percent of the waters surrounding Barbuda.
Known as the Blue Halo Initiative, the new rules are intended to enable fish populations to rebuild and habitats to recover in the waters within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of the Barbuda coast.
On August 12 the Barbuda Council signed the new ocean management regulations that zone the island’s coastal waters, strengthen its fisheries management, and establish the marine sanctuaries.Scheduled for implementation in 2015, the rules will impose a two-year ban on fishing in the Codrington Lagoon. Fishing nets will become illegal in 16 percent of Barbuda’s coastal waters and anywhere within 20 meters (65 feet) of a coral reef.
Catching parrotfish and sea urchins has been prohibited, as those herbivores keep algae levels on reefs low enough so that coral can thrive.
Barbuda is the first Caribbean island to put these measures in place. The new rules of the Blue Halo initiative come after 17 months of community consultation and scientific research with financial support from the Waitt Institute, based in La Jolla, California.
The Waitt Institute is backed by philanthropist Ted Waitt, co-founder and former chairman and CEO of Gateway Computers, Inc., which pioneered the direct marketing of personal computers.
The Environmental Law Institute, ELI, based in Washington, DC, led the legal analysis and drafting for the Blue Halo Initiative.
ELI Ocean Program Co-Director Kathryn Mengerink said, “Barbuda is an incredible place with a community dedicated to sustainably managing its important ocean resources. We had the opportunity to help draft the legal language – language that was based on the needs of the community, the function of the ecosystem, and the hard work of the Barbuda Council, the Waitt Institute, and the many partners who contributed to the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative’s success.”
The Barbuda government is fully behind the Blue Halo Initiative.
“This will definitely benefit the people of Barbuda, and Antigua as well. No part of this is meant to hurt fishers. It’s the reverse – ensuring that they have a livelihood that will last in perpetuity,” said Arthur Nibbs, chairman of the Barbuda Council and Antigua and Barbuda minister of fisheries.
While conservationists and the Barbuda government are celebrating the new rules, Barbudan fishermen are not so happy.
The “Antigua Observer” newspaper reported August 19 that people who make their living on Barbuda’s 43 active fishing vessels are appealing to the Waitt Institute and the Barbuda Council to find alternative income sources for them before the rules take effect.
Gerald Price, former president of the Fisherman’s Cooperative on Antigua, said while he approves of the new environmental regulations understands the fishermens’ concerns.
“There should be, before this actual law comes into effect, an alternative method for how these fishermen will make a living,” Price told reporters on Antigua.
He explained that while Antigua fishermen can make a living with carpentry or hotel work, other employment is hard to find on Barbuda.
“As we understand it,” said Price, “they are 100 percent dependent on fishing and consequently when these regulations come into effect, it’s going to be bleak.”
The Blue Halo Initiative is a collaboration among the Barbuda Council, Codrington Lagoon National Park, Barbuda Fisheries Division, Office of the Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda, the people of Barbuda, and the Waitt Institute.
There is no contract or other formal agreement between the Waitt Institute and the Government of Antigua and Barbuda or the Barbuda Council. The Waitt Institute provides the tools, resources, and training to enable Barbuda to develop and implement new policies for sustainable use of coastal resources. The Waitt Institute makes policy recommendations based on science, case studies, and a deepening understanding of the specific situation in Barbuda.
Any party can refuse the Waitt Institute’s recommendations, assistance, or involvement at any time, the Institute says, to counter local fears that it just wants to create fish sanctuaries and stop people from fishing or steal gold from local shipwrecks.
Instead, the Waitt Institute says, “The goal of the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative is to improve the lives of the people of Barbuda by replenishing fish stocks therefore improving catch quantity, and ultimately improving and securing fishing potential for future generations. Restored coastal fisheries means fishermen can stay closer to shore, spending less money on gasoline, safer fishing trips for small boats, and increased safety for SCUBA and free divers who can dive shallow waters for a good catch.”
All services provided by the Waitt Institute are under the institute’s mission of “empowering communities to restore their oceans.”
The Blue Halo Initiative was patterned after a similar project in Bermuda, also called Blue Halo.
The Institute says the Blue Halo Initiative is the pilot for future work of the Waitt Institute, which says on its website that it is “committed to replicating this science-based, community-driven approach by partnering with an additional government every year.”
ELI Senior Attorney Read Porter said, “This is the first step in achieving ocean and economic health. Next the hard work starts, implementing the regulations and achieving compliance with them.”
By Alex Card
Over the past 50 years, Caribbean coral reefs and fish populations have undergone major declines. Hundreds of marine protected areas have been established to restrict fishing across the Caribbean, but with little knowledge of fish movements to guide their design or assess their effectiveness.
An open access study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a cadre of international university scientists followed fish movement in the Caribbean Sea to determine if marine protected areas are doing their job and how they might be improved.
“The fish tracking project grew out of a long-term collaboration between the NOAA Biogeography Branch and the U.S. National Park Service,” said Simon Pittman, a marine ecologist at NOAA and the University of the Virgin Islands. “It became evident that we needed to gain a better understanding of fish movements to determine if the fishes were staying in the protected areas.”
Turning to tracking technology for assistance, the researchers used miniature acoustic transmitters and an array of fixed acoustic receivers to answer three questions: How far do Caribbean fish travel? Are adjacent marine protected areas truly connected? And are the areas large enough to protect the fish that swim within and between them?
The researchers studied 18 species from July 2006 to July 2008 and tagged 184 individual specimens — 21 of which were never detected. Before tagging, the fish were caught with locally made traps of traditional design. Researchers took the captured fish back to a field station for a quick bit of surgery, implanting the acoustic transmitter and suturing the wound with standard surgical equipment. The fish spent the night at the field station, underwent a postoperative check-up and were discharged back into the reef.
With more than 40 acoustic receivers continuously listening for tagged fish across the Puerto Rican shelf, there was plenty of routine equipment maintenance to perform.
“If we were downloading data from the acoustic receivers, then an average day would include 10 or more short SCUBA dives to clean the growth off the mooring lines where the receivers are attached,” Pittman said. The receivers would then be removed and taken to a boat where the researchers downloaded any data onto a computer before replacing the receiver.
Submerged mooring floats occasionally went missing, only to be found gouged and lacerated on the seafloor. Whispers of possible sabotage spread through the team, only to be assuaged months later, when a receiver picked up an unknown tag ID. After consulting a number of other research groups, it was determined that a 12-foot female tiger shark — tagged by the Guy Harvey Research Institute — had taken a liking to the floats.
“She must have been a little disappointed, as plastic is unlikely to be as tasty as her usual prey,” Pittman said.
While most of the fish were tracked automatically, researchers monitored 20 tagged fish manually, recording their position every 15 minutes over the course of a day. A rotation of three or four researchers took eight-hour shifts to accomplish the task, which Pittman called the study’s biggest challenge.
“We had to draw straws for the 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift, which was the hardest even with free pizza and drinks provided,” Pittman said. “Any field work at sea has its challenges, but working at night can be tricky.”
Long nights and fatigue weren’t the study’s only obstacles. Pittman recalled an instance where a Coast Guard patrol boat stealthily approached him and a student, ordering the two to keep their hands on their heads until they explained their business on the shore at 2 a.m.
In spite of the challenges involved, the study provided plenty of valuable data showing that fish often travel between and out of marine protected areas, and in some cases travel tens of kilometers away from their home range to spawn. One lane snapper arrived in the bay at sunrise and left along the same pathway at sunset, a behavior that Pittman described as clocking in and clocking out.
The study’s findings suggest that many marine protected areas, or MPAs, should be larger, and that managers should be mindful of activities outside of their jurisdiction. Furthermore, MPAs should be designed with attention to shape as well as size.
“Most MPAs are designed to protect nearshore resources, yet fish may need to cross the shelf at specific times of the life cycle to spawn or shift to deeper reefs with maturity,” Pittman said. “Our data highlights a potential problem that many MPAs are designed without any knowledge of the movements patterns of the species they intend to protect.”
Pittman and the other researchers have returned to the Virgin Islands to track key species that they previously missed, such as parrotfish. In the new study, the team will expand their acoustic network to examine connectivity between important spawning sites.
The reserve around the Chagos islands is the world's larges.
By Roger Harrabin
Marine Protected Areas are heading for a 10-fold rise within a decade.
A report to a UN meeting on biodiversity in Hyderabad reports that more than 8.3 million sq km - 2.3% of the global ocean area - is now protected.
The percentage is small but the rapid growth in recent times leads to hope that the world will hit its target of 10% protected by 2020.
This would have looked most unlikely prospect just a few years ago.
The aspiration was agreed by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2004 with a target date of 2012. Progress was so slow at first that the target was slipped to 2020 - with some researchers forecasting it would not be reached until mid-century.
But recently there have been huge additions - like Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK-controlled Chagos archipelago and US-controlled uninhabited territories in the mid-Pacific.
The Cook Islands recently announced a 1.1 million sq km MPA - that is four times the area of the UK land mass. New Caledonia's is even bigger - 1.4 million sq km.
Australia has added a further 2.7 million sq km to its listing of the Great Barrier Reef. Now 28 countries have designated MPAs of more than 10%.
But these statistics may not be quite so impressive as they appear as most of them are far distant from people who would be likely to over-exploit them.
And a recent paper on the demise of the Barrier Reef demonstrates that declaring an area protected does not necessarily shield it from distant influences like over-nutrification.
Mark Spalding from the Nature Conservancy, lead author of the report, told BBC News: "This is great news in the sense that the prospect looked so hopeless until recently. We really should manage to meet the 10% target now.
"But we have to ask whether the targets in themselves are enough - or whether governments need to be smarter to ensure that they're protecting the very most important areas.
"I don't want to knock any of the MPAs but some appear to be easy wins, where you could stick a pin on a map and maybe send a patrol vessel. We need more than that."
Dr Spalding said it was vital now for nations to concentrate efforts on MPAs near heavily-populated coastlines where marine resources were most at risk.
The UK government has been accused of dragging its feet after postponing by a year the introduction of MPAs around the coast of England.