Oceans cover more than 95% of the living space on Earth. Within their depths, there are places that are home to species that are not found anywhere else. Some areas of the ocean are of such importance to the biodiversity of our planet that they’ve been designated World Heritage Sites. It is their “outstanding universal value” that makes them worthy of the designation and integral to the mission of the World Heritage Centre’s Marine Programme to preserve these areas for future generations.
The problem is, preserving these areas is simple enough in theory but not so simple in actual practice.
One of the most famous of the World Heritage marine sites is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. As the very first such designated site, the reef has been at the top of the list for more than twenty years. It is also an area with tremendous public appeal and awareness, located in the waters of a wealthy country. It would seem these factors would put the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park firmly in the camp of areas that are thriving. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
A report by the University of Wisconsin-Madison that appeared in Science shows that without better management at the local level, the Great Barrier Reef – along with several other UNESCO World Heritage Sites – is in danger of collapse from climate change. In the case of the Great Barrier Reef, carbon dioxide emissions are causing ocean acidification and coral bleaching. These, in combination with overfishing and nutrient runoff, as well as dredging in the area, is causing the reef to be more susceptible to the effects of carbon dioxide than it would be otherwise.
According to the report, the Australian government must step in to better manage this area because “it’s an unfolding disaster. The reef needs less pollution from agricultural runoff and port dredging, less carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, and less fishing pressure…” Stepping up to deliver that level of protection for the Great Barrier Reef would require aggressive management with trade-offs that might not be viewed favorably by the local constituencies involved.
That’s the very thing causing the authors of the report concern. “These ecosystems are of value to the whole world, not only to the countries that have jurisdiction over them. It may be necessary for other countries to bring pressure to bear on these ‘host’ countries or to offer them assistance, to ensure that these iconic ecosystems are protected for the benefit of all of humanity,” says co-author Scott Barrett.
It’s daunting to realize that a UNESCO World Heritage designation does not convey with it the funds or protections required to maintain the sites in peak health. Just when you’d think the problem was solved, it turns out there’s yet another layer that must be addressed.
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