What on Earth is a ‘seascape’?

© Will Turner

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” environmental buzzwords are everywhere these days. Conservation News breaks it down in an occasional series we’re calling “What on Earth?” 

In this installment, we explore "seascapes,” an approach to ocean conservation, which helps countries balance protection and production for the marine ecosystems they depend on. 

What’s a ‘seascape’?

It’s a way of thinking about how to take care of the ocean — a blueprint of sorts for how a given area of ocean can be used sustainably. 

So why are ‘seascapes’ necessary?

Historically, “management” of the ocean — a dry word used to describe how societies decide to use and protect the resources in their waters — has tended to happen on a small-scale, place-by-place basis. For example, a country can restrict fishing or create an ocean-based tourism site in an area, without really considering the impact it could have somewhere else. There is an obvious drawback to this approach, as one expert points out. 

What’s that?

“The ocean and the species within it do not adhere to geographic boundaries set by people, so you can’t just protect a single place or a single ecosystem; a piecemeal approach to ocean conservation isn’t going to cut it,” says Shannon Murphy, a marine biologist and manager of the seascapes program at Conservation International. 

In other words, drawing lines on a map doesn’t work?

Not quite — lines on a map are still important! But a seascape is about more than that. Mainly, it’s about balancing the needs of all the people who depend on the ocean — without depleting it — in a given region. 

What people are we talking about?

For starters, local communities depend on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods and their food: Three out of seven people — that’s about 3 billion people around the world — rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. Marine resources, including seafood, also fuel the global economy, with many governments relying on fishing exports and commercial fishing licenses as a major source of their revenue. 

So seascapes are a way to bring all these groups to the table?

Precisely. Conservation International conceived of this approach in 2004 to help bring together partners in a given region — from fishers to companies to national governments — under a common goal: protecting their seas. 

How large is a ‘given region’?

That depends on the place and the context. Seascapes can stretch across millions of square kilometers of coastal land and sea, spanning the jurisdictions of multiple countries and island nations. Usually, seascapes will include a network of marine protected areas (MPAs), where human activities such as tourism, development and fishing are limited to protect ocean areas that are particularly important for marine life such as coral reefs or fish breeding grounds. 

So these seascapes are off-limits to people?

Well, no: The aim of a seascape is not to keep people out but to help countries and communities manage how people use it, to strike a balance between ocean protection and production. 

In addition to MPAs, other features of a seascape can include community marine parks, no-take zones, sustainable fishing areas and ecotourism programs. These multi-use areas ensure that communities can derive food and incomes from the ocean without overexploiting it. Additionally, the profits from activities such as fishing and tourism helps finance efforts to protect coastal and ocean ecosystems, according to Murphy. 

“Support or funding from non-profits and philanthropic donors is often necessary to get a seascape started, but the ultimate goal is to ensure that it can eventually stand on its own,” Murphy says. 

“Education programs can help equip local communities and governments with the knowledge they need to ensure that their practices are sustainable, while tourism or sustainable fishing provide a consistent flow of funding to help support local economies and conservation within a seascape.” 

Seems rather straightforward if you think about it.

It may seem straightforward, but establishing a seascape can differ from one place to another based on the types of marine ecosystems in the region, as well as geography, politics and culture. 

So is there a ‘formula’ for doing this, then?

There is no “one-size-fits-all” guide to creating a seascape. 

However, a group of Conservation International researchers recently sifted through 15 years’ worth of data and conducted surveys across five different seascapes to identify the best practices for establishing and maintaining them. The researchers learned that successful seascapes share common approaches: they rely on community-led initiatives and traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples; they are supported by local, regional and national government governments; and they incorporate methods for monitoring the ecological and social impacts of conservation efforts. 

“It’s not about going in and telling a nation or community what they need; it is about bringing everyone together to find a shared vision for protecting and managing the ocean they depend on,” says Murphy, the study’s lead author. 

Can you give me an example of a seascape?

Sure: An area that we call the “Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape” was created in 2004. It stretches along the Pacific coasts of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador and covers 2 million square kilometers (770,000 square miles) of coastal land and ocean — an area nearly three times the size of Texas. 

Four countries agreed to manage that huge area? That could not have been easy.

Indeed it was not — it took local support, science and a lot of work. 

“We started by creating relationships and building up trust with regional governments, local communities and all of the other groups that use the ocean in this region,” says Ana Gloria Guzman, who leads Conservation International’s work in Costa Rica and helped to establish the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape. 

“Before the seascape, there was this stigma that protecting the ocean meant that you couldn’t touch it. We brought these groups together to show them that is not the case; through collaboration, ocean conservation can actually benefit people in countless ways — from increased food security to protection from storms and flooding.

Over the past 17 years, more than 100 groups have cooperated to stitch together a network of 77 MPAs within the seascape that protect one of the busiest marine migratory routes in the world, traversed by sharks, turtles, whales and seabirds. 

That’s great about the protected areas, but what about the waters outside these areas? How are they managed?

That’s a great question: In areas that lie outside the MPAs, Conservation International works with local communities in the four countries to help implement sustainable fishing practices such as only allowing certain gear and returning juvenile fish to the ocean if they are caught so that they can reproduce. Through our seascapes program, for example, regional governments and communities in Costa Rica have worked to restore their mangrove forests and strengthen their small-scale fisheries, which employ 400,000 people across the country and support local food security.

In what other ways does protecting the ocean benefit people in this region?

Nature-based ecotourism has also helped stimulate economies throughout the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, particularly in Costa Rica and the Galápagos Islands. 


The creation of artisanal fisheries has helped increase jobs in the region as well, giving fishers access to markets that fetch higher prices for sustainably caught fish. 

“With support from the seascape, fish populations are rebounding and local communities are working to restore fisheries and critical habitats such as mangroves, which act as a natural barrier against flooding and sea-level rise,” Guzman says. “The network of communities, regional authorities, governments and organizations established through this seascape now has the ability to make collective decisions regarding the sustainable management of their ocean and coastal land.”

So what are the next steps? 

The goal is to continue working with countries, communities and the private sector to create seascapes around the world. To date, less than 10 percent of the world’s oceans are protected. But governments and conservationists worldwide are pushing to expand protection to 30 percent of the ocean by 2030 —  which scientists say is necessary to limit the impacts of climate change on our oceans and prevent the widespread extinction of marine species.

How are we supposed to protect almost a third of the ocean?

It’s an ambitious target — but scientists agree that it’s possible if countries work together to invest in the creation of MPAs and limit destructive activities such as overfishing and bottom trawling, which scrapes the sea floor, pulverizing fragile habitats in its path. 

“Seascapes prove that large-scale ocean protection doesn’t have to come at the cost of economic growth,” Murphy says. “In fact, research estimates that protecting 30 percent of the ocean could increase the annual global catch by eight million tons and limit the most severe marine impacts of climate change. The seascapes approach shows that if we take care of our oceans, our oceans will take care of us."

 

Shannon Murphy is the seascapes manager at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A grotto in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, the Galápagos Islands (© Will Turner) 


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