Coral reefs are among the most productive and diverse of all natural ecosystems. Recent decades have been catastrophic for them, however; some 10% of the world’s reefs may already have been degraded beyond recovery, and another 30% are in decline. Meanwhile biologically rich coastal wetlands, including mangrove forests and salt marshes, are favourite sites for dredging and filling by industry, farmers and home builders. Sea turtles and marine mammals such as seals, manatees and small whales are at particular risk.
In 1981 Mediterranean governments commited themselves to creating a large network of specially-protected marine areas (SPAs) and agreed on a first text of a related protocol for signature the following year.
Among the purposes of this action was to protect the breeding grounds of commercially exploitable fish and shellfish, to protect Mediterranean species of flora and fauna, and to keep bathing waters and beaches safe and healthy for tourists. The protected areas were also to be used for 'baseline studies' of ecosystems by which to measure progress and compare environmental conditions in the future. They would preseve wintering homes for migratory birds, and serve as pools of genetic diversity.
Since that time several regional programmes have set up their own coastal and marine protected areas, and regional activity centres to administer them. Three of these have, like the Mediterranean, adopted protocols concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW): the Caribbean, South-East Pacific and Eastern Africa.
Protected sites in the Mediterranean now number in the hundreds. In the South-East Pacific National Marine Biodiversity studies are being prepared to help identify marine ecosystems of high biodiversity as a basis for creation of new protected areas. The Caribbean programmes includes management plans for endangered species, and guidelines for ecotourism and for the identification, establishment and management of protected areas.
The new Regional Seas strategy continues this emphasis, calling for the development with ‘relevant regional partners’ of programmes for ecosystem-based management of living marine resources and large marine ecosystems. It also calls attention to the emerging issue of the high seas and the need for new protected areas for these enormous ocean regions.