Think Out Loud

Oregon State University researchers work on ocean protection

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Oct. 6, 2021 5:17 p.m. Updated: Oct. 13, 2021 6:40 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Oct. 6

Marine protected areas are parts of the ocean that are managed to protect habitat and species. Oregon State University researchers led the effort to create The MPA Guide, a tool to help people around the world better understand those protected areas and help safeguard the spaces. Kirsten Grorud-Colvert is a research professor at OSU and the lead author of the guide. Jenna Sullivan-Stack is a postdoctoral scholar at OSU and is a co-author. They join us with details.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller, we turn now to Marine Protected Areas or MPAs. They are parts of the ocean that people manage with the goal of safeguarding marine ecosystems. But these MPAs are created and managed in very different ways around the world. A new effort led by researchers at Oregon State University aims to develop best practices. They created the MPA Guide as a tool to help people better safeguard these spaces in a changing world. Kirsten Grorud-Colvert is a Research Professor at Oregon State University in the Department of Integrative Biology, the lead author of the MPA Guide, Jenna Sullivan-Stack is a postdoctoral scholar at OSU and one of the co-authors of this guide. They both join me now. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Kirsten Grorud-Colvert / Jenna Sullivan-Stack: Thank you for having us. Yes, thanks so much.

Miller: Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, first. What exactly are these marine protected areas?

Kirsten Grorud-Colvert: Well, marine protected areas are simply places in the ocean that are protected, and they’re very similar to protected areas on land. We know about national parks, state parks, city parks, even dog parks. There’s lots of different types of parks on land and it’s very similar in the ocean as well. Protected areas range from fully protected, which means the extractive and destructive activities aren’t allowed there, or to other levels of protection. For example, if an area is lightly protected, we start to see some increasing number of different kinds of uses there and they’ve been used all around the world. We have them in Oregon as well, and they’ve been used for decades and in some cases for generations. For example, Indigenous communities have used them in the past for time immemorial. So the goal is to protect that biodiversity like you said and the benefits that it provides to people.

Miller: Going back say hundreds of years, or time immemorial, some Indigenous groups, they might say, ‘we’re not going to fish in this patch of the ocean?’

Grorud-Colvert: That’s exactly right. The idea that if you want your fisheries to be sustained, if you want your resources to be there, you need these areas set aside to replenish them and to be kind of an investment account to be able to produce into the future.

Miller: Jenna Sullivan-Stack, what percentage of the world’s oceans currently fall under some version of protection?

Sullivan-Stack: Yeah that’s a great question. That’s something that has been very confusing to answer for a really long time, so one of the main reasons that we helped develop the MPA Guide. So, I think it’s about 7% now, are in some version of protection. That number is based on the, there’s an international group that’s led by the UN that keeps track of that protection. What that actually means is different based on what these different levels are like Kirsten said.

Miller: Is it fair to say, based on these different levels, that some places may have lines drawn around them on maps, that would seem to confer some level of protection, but in practice, it’s really no different there than in the place outside the lines? Are the variations in what these areas, what they actually mean, are they so great as to be, in some ways, that some places really just simply aren’t protected?

Sullivan-Stack: That’s a really great question and great insight, and that is the case. There’s one other aspect of the protection that is important and that’s sort of the stage at which, whether the protection is active in the water. Even if there are plans for lots of really great protections, if they aren’t actively happening, they’re not actually working to safeguard biodiversity and get all the benefits that healthy oceans provide. An analogy for that is just saying that you want to lose weight, and then counting it as having lost weight, doesn’t really work. So there are a lot of places that we’re saying that we have protection and we aren’t actually enforcing, or seeing the benefits of that protection yet.

Miller: Well, Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, when you’ve looked around the world at best practices, how does enforcement work, and I imagine maybe it works in different ways depending on the governments that are paying attention, but who is actually looking at these places to say, ‘No, you can’t do that here?’


Grorud-Colvert: That’s right. Enforcement is really key. And we also talk about all the things that come before enforcement in the MPA Guide. We know that there’s a lot of best practices in creating an MPA, and kind of paramount among them are involving the local community, considering all the different types of impacts and who will be affected and who will benefit and making sure that the conversation is inclusive and equitable and with multiple rights holders and stakeholders at the table. Because of that, the goal is kind of first and foremost that this will be a community and local effort where people are on board and complying. Now, you often have places where people from outside the community or in some places around the world from other countries will come in, and that really speaks to another one of these key ingredients that we talk about, which is just capacity, we do need to have a minimal amount, at least, of support for these areas. But I will say that MPAs are one of the most cost-beneficial ways of managing areas of the ocean, simply because drawing lines on the map is pretty clear and it’s easy to see if something’s happening inside or outside.

Miller: So how go back to the first thing you said, that it’s not just about enforcement, but before that, you have to have a communal process involving local stakeholders, are there cases where you have seen, where these areas were more or less imposed on people and that was the reason that they weren’t respected?

Grorud-Colvert: Yes, there’re certainly examples, particularly when we think about global targets, right, to kind of need a certain percent of your ocean area that’s protected, this idea that you’re just going to establish an area and have it be as big as possible so that it can meet those goals. But there’s also conversely examples of great processes where the community was involved. Oregon has a great example of that. Here in our state, we have five fully protected marine reserves and nine marine protected areas. And in 2008, a whole process started to evaluate what sites should be MPAs off Oregon’s coast. Any community group could propose an MPA, and it had certain things behind it like scientific evidence and community support and then community teams with different members of the communities representing, for example, fisheries interests, conservation interests, local business interests. They all got together and reviewed the proposals and then made a recommendation to the Governor that ended up with the MPAs that we have now. So there are ways to do it right, and the MPA guide’s goal is to point to those ways

Miller: Jenna Sullivan-Stack, can you tell us about just one of those protected, fully protected areas or otherwise protected areas in Oregon, so we have a better sense for what this is actually like locally?

Sullivan-Stack: Yeah, that’s great. We have five of the marine reserves: Cape Falcon, Cascade Head, Otter Rock, Cape Perpetua, Redfish Rocks. Hopefully, our listeners have visited these beautiful areas. My favorite is Cape Perpetua. I have done most of my research in the inner tidal. That’s the area that’s covered by water at low tide and covered by water at high tide and uncovered at low tide. So that’s where tide pool creatures live, like sea stars and anemones and urchins and all those magical creatures there. Cape Perpetua is a really beautiful area. Lots of really great research happens there. It’s particularly important here in Oregon, we’re at the forefront of a lot of climate changes that are happening in the ocean. We’re in this really productive upwelling zone, where really cold nutrient-rich water from deep is being up-welled onto the continental margin and it’s exposed to light, all those nutrients are exposed to light and that forms the base of a really rich food web and but it also brings up a lot of water that has low ph and you might have heard of ocean acidification. It’s a really great place to be able to study what’s happening in these areas and learn a lot about a lot of scientific monitoring, happening things like that. It’s just a magical place to get to spend some time.

Miller: Do we have enough data yet to be able to say the life we see in this Inter-Tidal Zone, it’s different and it’s better and more diverse because this is protected, than a potentially similar place, up or down the Oregon coast that’s not protected?

Sullivan-Stack: Yeah, that’s a great question, too, and actually very timely. We are just beginning the review process. Actually, the state legislature is reviewing the monitoring data for our marine reserves here in Oregon. We’ll be reporting on that exact question here in 2023. We have just a wealth of scientific information globally, including a lot here in the US, that asked that exact question, and shows in a lot of cases, and depending on what the level of protection is, when you protect an area well, then you see a lot more recovery of this diverse biodiversity and abundances of different species, things like that.

Miller: Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, is there any fear that if you say close off to fishing big chunks of the ocean, and my understanding is if we’re at about seven or 8% right now, in terms of some version of protection, the global goals are much higher, around 30%. But is there a fear that if you have real meaningful protections in a big chunk of the ocean, then there will just be a lot more fishing in the remaining parts?.

Grorud-Colvert: Thanks, Dave, for referencing the targets. Actually, there will be a process in the next 12 months really to, at the international level, set these targets for how much of the ocean is the aspiration to be protected. Some of the recommendations right now are 30% by 2030. So yes, that is higher than seven or 8%. This is why MPAs are one tool, they’re not the only tool in the toolbox. These types of conversations have to happen with a whole ocean approach in mind. So certainly there will be some displacement of effort when one site is set aside for one use versus another, but we’re dealing with that ocean-wide right now as new sources of use of ocean space come up, like renewable energy sources, many other different uses of the ocean. This is why we need to have a conversation about that and not only to fish harder, but to fish better and not only to protect more but to protect more, better.

Miller: How does climate change, which to a huge extent is actually, ocean change, how does this affect everything we’re talking about?

Grorud-Colvert: Yes, it’s certainly an overlaying reality on top of everything else. It’s estimated that humans have caused warming of approximately one degree Celsius by 2017 compared to the levels before the Industrial Revolution. Because the ocean absorbs so much of the heat on our planet and also the carbon dioxide put out on our planet, the ocean is definitely changing. Here on the Oregon coast, we’re in a really unique position to actually see some of the effects of those changes firsthand. We’re kind of a proving ground for what the future ocean may look like in many other places as well. So one of the key ways that the reserves here in Oregon have been a part of working towards these solutions have been as research sentinel sites. These are areas where, when you remove some of these other pressures that affect these ecosystems and habitats and species, you get a clearer sense of how climate change might be affecting the dynamics. The other thing that we know is that when you have systems with many species, healthy habitats, productive spaces, they’re more likely to resist some of these changes that we expect to come down the line from climate change. So in that sense, they’re also kind of this insurance policy that we’re hoping will help sustain us into the future.

Miller: Kirsten Grorud-Colvert and Jenna Sullivan-Stack, thanks very much.

Grorud-Colvert and Sullivan-Stack: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Kirsten Grorud-Colvert is a Research Professor at Oregon State University and the lead author of this new MPA Guide, Jenna Sullivan-Stack is one of the co-authors of the Guide, A postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Integrated Biology.

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