Uniting conservation and restoration for large-scale ocean recovery

Posted: 7th June 2024

Photo: RSPB.

A special collection of the Nature Journal Ocean Sustainability curated by Dr Tundi Agardy and Dr Lisa Wedding is being published later this year. In the lead-up to its release, Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme Oversight and Selection Panel member Dr Agardy reflects on the challenges we face in large-scale marine restoration, and the opportunities to overcome them. 

Marine restoration is hard. Marine restoration at the scale that we now need to practice it to address our damaged planetary health is even harder. Not impossible – and most certainly urgently needed – but still hard. 

Several pioneering practitioners supported by the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme have been able to demonstrate that large-scale, multi-habitat marine and coastal restoration is indeed doable. Some of these projects will gain a higher profile on the worldwide stage when a special collection of the Nature journal Ocean Sustainability is published at the end of this year. Oxford University’s Dr Lisa Wedding and I have been curating the special collection and are impressed with both the ambitions and the progress of marine restoration initiatives. Submitted papers reflect on how the challenges that these practitioners encountered in doing active restoration and promoting passive recovery were overcome, and the lessons learned will be invaluable for catalysing further restoration. 

Photo: Zafer Kızılkaya.

But it is plainly not enough. Marine restoration at scale is rare, and restoration seems to be distinct from conservation, often involving different communities of practice, different academic disciplines, and different advocates and supporting policies. This fragmentation is odd given that the 196 countries that are signatories to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework have committed not only to the protected area targets that currently preoccupy the conservation community, but also restoration targets. Specifically, Target 2 of the framework is a commitment to ensure that by 2030 at least 30 per cent of areas of degraded ecosystems are under effective restoration, in order to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, ecological integrity and connectivity. With such serious ambitions and so little time left until 2030, one would think that conservation and restoration would move forward hand-in-hand, in a systematic and maximally efficient way. Unfortunately, that is not currently the case. 

Large-scale marine restoration often requires concurrent restoration of land, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems. To do this effectively, we need communication and coordination between a host of different branches of government and many diverse communities or user groups. Marine systems are inherently more open than terrestrial ecosystems, and many of the drivers of degradation originate in land use or freshwater use practices. Focused and small-scale restoration does sometimes work, of course, but discreet patches of restored habitat do little to promote ecosystem recovery or enhance ocean health. For this we need multi-habitat restoration which requires a multi-faceted strategy and sustained support. Successful marine restoration at this scale can be costly, requiring dependable flows of funding for planning, stakeholder engagement, and restoration interventions across long time frames. And many donors are hesitant to invest in areas that are degraded – some preferring instead to support relatively small marine reserves in remote places. At the same time, government policies and the budgets to execute them are rarely aimed at carrying out restoration projects. 

There is however, an obvious, and as yet underutilised, way to direct investment toward the places where restoration can enhance ocean health, using policies already in place in most maritime countries. This entails using existing marine spatial planning (MSP) frameworks. Marine spatial planning is a public process aiming to optimise activities within the marine space by minimising conflicts and maximising sustainability. Marine spatial planning is under development or on track to be implemented in most coastal countries and island nations worldwide. 

Photo: Blue Marine Foundation.

The newest iterations of marine spatial planning are climate smart, allowing planners to develop scenarios with different climate change-related projections and evaluate trade-offs in ocean use to make the best-informed decisions about allocating ocean space. Such allocation includes establishing climate refugia and limiting use in ecologically critical areas across a wide, interlinked set of ecosystems. 

To date much of marine spatial planning has focused on maintaining the status quo by preventing further degradation and avoiding user conflict (with powerful maritime industries often getting first dibs at ocean space).  Planning strategic management to restore critically important degraded areas has simply not been factored in. But restoration opportunities and priorities need to figure prominently in marine planning, especially if protected area and restored area targets are to be met. In 2023, Italian researchers Elisabetta Manea and Lucia Buongiorno and I published a paper on the need to embed restoration in marine spatial planning to achieve ocean regeneration. We suggested that five principles of ecosystem-based management could guide how strategic marine management might be done under marine spatial planning: 1) recognise connections (especially between coastal, marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems – but also between humans and their environment); 2) take an ecosystem services approach; 3) consider cumulative impacts; 4) manage for multiple use; and 5) embrace change and adapt. By using these guiding principles to identify places where restoration investment could be directed for maximum impact, marine spatial planning could catalyse large-scale marine restoration. 

Having marine planners recognise that restoration is both needed and possible could lead to restoration projects being allocated space within marine plans as they unfold or are amended. And large-scale marine spatial planning frameworks can ensure that all the crucial, interconnected areas that need to be conserved to restore ecological processes are priorities for management. So, marine spatial planning can and should drive restoration, and thereby ocean health. But the reverse is also true – by promoting the recovery of productive ocean ecosystems, restoration can also lead to better marine spatial planning outcomes for maritime industries and coastal communities.  

Photo: Omer Ozyilmazel.

We recognise that restoration is a place-based, local endeavour.  Marine spatial planning, on the other hand, can be done at any scale, from planning within the confines of a small marine park to huge national marine planning efforts, and even international cooperation within shared regions like the Arctic or in semi-enclosed regional seas like the Baltic and Mediterranean.  But a big challenge with geographically large-scale planning is meaningful engagement of stakeholders. In the absence of meaningful engagement, what can result is that local communities and stakeholders with vested interests can be left feeling ignored and alienated, leading even the best laid plans to be prevented from materialising into strategic and effective management.  

We know from myriad Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme projects that restoration can educate, engage, and foster stewardship in local community, and restoration may provide a means to connect local stakeholders with national and international marine planning. By deliberately embedding restoration within large-scale (national/ international) climate smart marine plans, restoration projects could be critical anchor points for engagement. This is imperative to fostering ocean stewardship, and to ensuring that ocean space is not allocated away to the most powerful industrial users. After all, the ocean is our greatest commons, one that cannot be owned by individuals or corporations, and its health is imperative to human well-being the world over.  

Yes, restoration is hard, and large-scale marine restoration harder still – but marine spatial planning can be harnessed to make it happen. As the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme delivers ever more support for restoration at scale across Europe, decision-makers would do well to pay attention and not forfeit this huge opportunity to enhance our ocean’s and our planet’s health. 

To find out more about Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya the Solent Seasacape, visit their project pages. 

View all News