Conserving the Crown Jewels of the Ocean

© Barry Peters (Public Domain)
Coco Islands

“World Heritage” brings to mind places like the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal of India, or the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil.  But 70 percent of the world is covered by oceans that provide habitat for our seafood, as well as endangered marine mammals such as the blue whale, the largest creature on earth.  The oceans are the world’s largest “carbon sink”, absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide that our automobiles and power plants discharge into the atmosphere.  And tiny bacteria in the ocean produce more than half of the oxygen we breathe.

The oceans are also home to some of the most spectacular places on earth such as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania.

© B. Navez (Public Domain)
Coco Islands

© R. J. Shallenberger
Papahanaumokuakea (United States of America)

Since 2005 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has sought to identify and include the exceptional places in the ocean on the World Heritage List.  Today, 46 marine sites, located in 35 countries, have been listed under the authority of the World Heritage Convention of 1972, signed by 190 countries.  UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and its Marine Programme are responsible for ensuring the conservation of existing and potential marine areas of exceptional value that have been recognized for their outstanding natural beauty, significant geological processes or features, significant ecological processes, and especially, significant habitats for conserving biological diversity.  These sites are popularly known as the “Crown Jewels of the Ocean.”

World Heritage marine sites cover about a quarter of the area currently designated as marine protected areas throughout the world.

But the collective expertise and experience of the people who manage these places is as important as the area covered by any one site or the entire network.  Taken together the World Heritage marine site network and its managers can be leaders for positive change in ocean conservation at a global scale.

The “best of the best” marine sites should also be the best-managed sites.  While some, including the Great Barrier Reef, Papahanaumokuakea (United States), the Wadden Sea (Germany and the Netherlands), Malpelo Fauna and Flora (Colombia), are recognized as models of good practice, many others lack the financial and technical resources required for effective management in a rapidly changing world.  Better communication across the network of managers and the sharing of management experience is starting to improve the situation. Examples of successful practice are being identified and promoted.  New management approaches, such as ecosystem-based management and marine spatial planning, are being introduced.

© Alan Davis
Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)

St Kilda - Scottish Natural Heritage (United Kingdom & Northern Ireland)

Increasing threats to the world’s oceans such as climate change, overfishing, habitat loss, invasive species, and marine pollution, coupled with the recognition of the cumulative effects of these existing and new threats, make the priority of scaling up and improving management of World Heritage marine sites more important than ever.

Over the next ten years, UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme will continue to raise awareness about key management challenges and the major gaps in the coverage of marine sites on the World Heritage List. It will also explore what is possible in exceptional marine areas that lie beyond the borders of nations, the so-called “high seas”.  Since the World Heritage Convention does not currently apply to the high seas, 60% of the area of the world’s oceans, some creative thinking and initiatives will be required to apply the Convention’s criteria to these areas, known as the “common heritage of humanity”.   

However, none of these initiatives would have been possible without a unique partnership between UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and the private sector.  Since 2009, the Swiss luxury watch manufacturer Jaeger-LeCoultre, and the International Herald Tribune have provided funding and communications expertise to the World Heritage Marine Programme through the “Tides of Time” partnership.  More recently the government of Flanders in Belgium has contributed substantial funding to support several of the initiatives identified in the long-term strategy of the Marine Programme.

With the support of these partnerships, an international network of well-managed World Heritage marine sites that represent the most exceptional places within all major marine ecosystems of the world could be established over the next 10 years.  The potential of the World Heritage Marine Programme to set examples for the world is huge.  But so are the challenges facing these fragile and unique environments.

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