Guest Article #23

The UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme: A Community of Managers Driving Change in Ocean Conservation

The 1972 World Heritage Convention is founded on the premise that certain places on our planet are of Outstanding Universal Value and as such, should form part of the common heritage of humankind. On a planet of over 70 per cent ocean, a huge amount of our heritage is located in marine areas.

Launched in 2005, the mission of the World Heritage Marine Programme is to establish effective conservation of existing and potential marine areas of Outstanding Universal Value to make sure they will be maintained and thrive for generations to come. Today, 46 sites are inscribed on the World Heritage List specifically in recognition of their exceptional beauty, geology, ecosystem processes, biodiversity and habitat. They are located in 35 countries and cover about one quarter, by area, of all marine protected areas (MPAs) on the planet. They include a vast range of ecosystem types in both tropical and temperate ocean areas. While mangroves, coral reefs and salt marshes are relatively well represented among the network of marine sites on the World Heritage List, others are not.

Over the next 10 years, the Marine Programme aims to achieve three major goals:

  • World Heritage marine sites managed effectively to maintain their Outstanding Universal Value, using contemporary management approaches;
  • An international network of World Heritage marine sites reflecting a representative selection of all major marine ecosystems of the world;
  • A marine World Heritage site managers network that helps drive change in ocean conservation globally.

We strongly believe that UNESCO World Heritage marine sites have great potential to harness power as opinion drivers for global marine conservation. Despite their variations in size, socio-economic context and geography, World Heritage marine sites share common conservation challenges. At the same, time, they unite an exceptional pool of management expertise and success stories that could easily be shared, replicated and bring about successes in other sites. Rather than being a loose collection of 46 sites each speaking for itself, World Heritage marine site managers want to harness their power as representatives of the world's crown jewels of the ocean.  The first World Heritage marine sites managers' conference concluded clearly on the power that this managerial community can have when speaking with one voice.

Moreover, given their unique status, marine sites have a great potential to focus the attention of the global community and general public on ocean treasures, some of which are on the brink of disappearance. All around the world, ocean conservation has never been as challenging as it is today. Unprecedented ocean industrialization, on-going and unsustainable resource extraction and above all, the cumulative impacts of climate change, which might well become a major “game changer” and irreversibly alter the resilience of the most unique ocean ecosystems, make conservation an almost insurmountably difficult task. The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to alarm the international community that the very characteristics for which the site was recognized (universally outstanding and exceptional), are about to disappear and require urgent corrective action if future generations wish to continue to enjoy them. Over the 40 years lifespan of the World Heritage Convention, various exceptional places we consider as part of heritage for humanity have stirred the required attention and action via this route.

Considering that 70 per cent of the planet is covered by ocean, but less than 5 per cent of the World Heritage List is marine sites, there is a tremendous untapped potential to identify new sites with potential Outstanding Universal Value. A recent study indicated nine major marine gaps on the World Heritage List. The Arctic realm might be of special interest. Nearly no World Heritage sites exist anywhere along the vast and distinct Arctic coastlines, but this region contains many exceptional marine features. In addition, the World Heritage Convention could steer debate on high seas conservation. Even though the Convention does not apply to high seas areas, it is possible, for example, to apply the World Heritage criteria and identify potential sites of Outstanding Universal Value in the high seas. This would stimulate government action toward conserving exceptional sites that could be considered as part of the common heritage of humankind and which, without urgent proper conservation, are likely to pose an irreversible loss to future generations.

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage is an irreplaceable source of life and inspiration. Marine World Heritage sites are in a unique position to actively change the management of a significant percentage of the existing global MPA coverage, and thus directly, make a compelling contribution to multiple international biodiversity targets such as the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, among others.

For more information about the World Heritage Marine Programme visit: or watch the video narrated by Jacques Perrin: