March 17 (UPI) -- Researchers have pinpointed the areas of the ocean where strong protections would offer the greatest ecological benefits.
According to the new research, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, marine protections in specific areas would preserve 80% of the habitats for endangered marine species and boost commercial fish stocks several million of tons.
Commercial fishing's carbon footprint could also be dramatically reduced by eliminating trawling in the areas identified by the international team of scientists.
"Ocean life has been declining worldwide because of overfishing, habitat destruction and climate change," lead study author Enric Sala, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, said in a press release. "Yet only 7 percent of the ocean is currently under some kind of protection."
"In this study, we've pioneered a new way to identify the places that -- if strongly protected -- will boost food production and safeguard marine life, all while reducing carbon emissions," Sala said. "It's clear that humanity and the economy will benefit from a healthier ocean. And we can realize those benefits quickly if countries work together to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030."
To build their map, study authors compiled the expertise of marine biologists, climate experts and economists, highlighting regions of the ocean most threatened by human activities, including fishing and oil and gas extraction.
Scientists used a computer model to predict which threatened areas would benefit the most -- in terms of biodiversity protection, seafood production and climate mitigation -- from strict protections.
Though researchers created a model map to illustrate their work, the study's authors suggest policy makers in different parts of the world can adapt their framework to more precisely identify ocean areas where protections will offer the most benefits.
"There is no single best solution to save marine life and obtain these other benefits," said study co-author Juan S. Mayorga.
"The solution depends on what society -- or a given country -- cares about, and our study provides a new way to integrate these preferences and find effective conservation strategies," said Mayorga, a marine data scientist with the Environmental Market Solutions Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Though scientists relied on a sophisticated algorithm for the modeling efforts, they say the basic formula for preserving Earth's oceans is simple: find areas with a diversity of habitat and species that are threatened by human activity, and put strong protections in place.
"Perhaps the most impressive and encouraging result is the enormous gain we can obtain for biodiversity conservation -- if we carefully chose the location of strictly protected marine areas," said study co-author David Mouillot.
"One notable priority for conservation is Antarctica, which currently has little protection, but is projected to host many vulnerable species in a near future due to climate change," said Mouillot, a professor at the University of Montpellier in France.
Researchers suggest restricting commercial fishing access in vulnerable, biodiversity-rich parts of the ocean will ultimately benefit fish stocks, and thus, boost fishing hauls.
The latest study was one of the first to calculate the carbon footprint of trawling, the practice of drawing heavy nets across the ocean floor. Scientists estimate the environmentally destructive practice releases as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the aviation industry.
Forbidding trawling in areas of the ocean with high levels of biological activity would not only promote species diversity and abundance, but also ensure the ocean floor can efficiently store carbon.
"The ocean floor is the world's largest carbon storehouse. If we're to succeed in stopping global warming, we must leave the carbon-rich seabed undisturbed," said co-author Trisha Atwood, assistant professor at Utah State University.
"Yet every day, we are trawling the seafloor, depleting its biodiversity, and mobilizing millennia-old carbon and thus exacerbating climate change. Our findings about the climate impacts of bottom trawling will make the activities on the ocean's seabed hard to ignore in climate plans going forward," Atwood said.
Numerous studies have highlighted the important of land use and management changes for slowing climate change. The latest findings suggest marine management decisions are equally important.
"Now we have solid evidence that fully protecting over 30% of the ocean will be great for conserving fish stocks, improving fisheries production and helping to tackle climate change," said study co-author William Chueng.
"The ocean will greatly benefit from an international agreement with clear ambitions for protection, similar to having the Paris Agreement to set the global warming target for climate actions," said Chueng, a professor at the University of British Columbia.