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While the devil is in the details as to how their goals are met, marine protected areas are created and managed to achieve long-term conservation. Photo by Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock

Marine Protected Areas, Explained

There’s nuance in how we protect our oceans; here are the details.

Authored by

by Brian Owens

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It’s World Ocean Day, a day when the ocean takes the podium and the world professes concern, but also love, for the planet’s life force. It’s a day of celebrations, and also cautionary tales. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are one of the tools often touted to help sustain the ocean into the future. After attending the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress earlier this year, and also after writing for eight years about MPAs in the virtual pages of Hakai Magazine, we’ve come to realize there can be a lot of confusion about what, exactly, qualifies an area as an MPA. Defining one, it turns out, is sort of like defining love—you think you know what it means, but, in reality, it’s often situational. Just as putting a single definition on the many ways and people and things that we love can be impossible, it’s also a challenge to give a short, pithy, definitive description of an MPA. So we’ve created this explainer for you. Brian Owens took the questions you might have, talked to experts, and created this reference for MPAs and the variations thereof—all of which are ways that organizations, governments, and determined individuals can use MPAs to give the ocean we love a fighting chance.

What is an MPA?
How are MPAs established?
What are the different levels of protection?
How are MPAs managed?
What does a successful MPA look like?
What is the role of Indigenous people in MPA design?
What are the biggest challenges?
How do we plan for climate change?


What is an MPA?

Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are a primary tool for protecting marine species and ecosystems. But the term is not as clearly defined as you might expect.

Around the world, governments and other agencies employ many subtly different definitions. The most widely accepted language is that used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an organization of governments and civil-society groups, which defines an MPA as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”

Alexandra Barron, national director of the ocean program at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), says MPA is often used as a general term to describe any part of the ocean that has some protections. “It’s like a park or protected area on land, just in the water,” she says.

What counts as an MPA is driven by national laws and global agreements under the IUCN, so the definition is inherently political. Governments use different language and legal mechanisms to protect ocean areas, and they don’t always follow the same criteria or offer the same level of protection. (See What are the different levels of protection? below.) “No one MPA is the same as another,” says Barron. “They are all unique and different.”

The important thing, says Angelo Villagomez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is that conservation should be the primary reason for the existence of an MPA. “If you’re setting out to do conservation, you should call it an MPA,” he says.

But officially sanctioned MPAs are not the only way to protect the ocean. There are areas that have restricted access or are otherwise effectively protected in a way that produces some conservation benefit, even if that isn’t the main goal. These are imaginatively referred to as other effective area-based conservation measures, or OECMs.

This label can contain even more diversity than MPAs. “OECMs are a new tool,” says Villagomez. “We’ve spent 20 years figuring out what MPAs are, but we’ve only just started with OECMs, so there is less consensus.”

OECMs can include tools such as China’s system of aquatic germplasm reserves, which are set up to preserve the genetic diversity of endangered or commercially important species by protecting their nursery areas and spawning or feeding grounds. Because these reserves tend to be very large and prohibit almost all human activities within, many of them are also having a broader conservation impact on the ecosystem, says Ellen Pikitch, a professor of ocean conservation science at Stony Brook University in New York.

OECMs can also be areas governed by private individuals or organizations or by Indigenous and local communities or governments, or they can even be exclusion zones like those around military bases or NASA’s space launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The waters off the coast of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, for example, are home to a rich repository of marine life, including many endangered and protected species. “If you’re not allowing any activity in an area, the chances are good that conservation benefits are occurring there,” says Pikitch.

The key is that, whatever their official purpose, OECMs need to have real conservation outcomes to be counted toward global conservation goals. “Too often OECMs are just less effective conservation measures,” says Villagomez.

The world has agreed to set a target of protecting 30 percent of the oceans by 2030, but we are a long way off from that goal. Today, the Protected Planet database lists more than 18,000 MPAs and marine OECMs, covering more than 29.5 million square kilometers. That accounts for a little more than eight percent of the ocean’s surface.

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How are MPAs established?

Generally, there are three main mechanisms that nations use to establish an MPA: a decision made by the executive (the head of state or government), a law passed by the legislature (the assembly of elected representatives), or a regulatory process authorized by an existing law. In the United States, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) creates MPAs once certain conditions set out in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act are met. In Canada, three federal departments—Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Parks Canada, and Environment and Climate Change Canada—along with the provinces, territories, and private conservation groups, are responsible for creating 31 different types of MPAs and OECMs.

On the high seas, beyond any single country’s national waters, things are different. Until recently, there was no mechanism for creating protected areas on the high seas. The new international treaty on conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, abbreviated as BBNJ, agreed to in March 2023, changes that. “We have a general framework now, but all the details still need to be defined,” says Felipe Paredes, marine vice chair of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas.

The treaty, which needs to be ratified by at least 60 countries before it becomes legally binding, mostly replicates the national process for creating MPAs. A country, or group of countries, can propose an MPA on the high seas to the BBNJ secretariat (which has yet to be established). The parties to the treaty will then discuss the proposal, and if they agree on the MPA, they will determine who will be responsible for monitoring and enforcement, and how these will be funded.

This treaty will be vital for reaching the goal of protecting 30 percent of the oceans. “There is no way to reach that without considering the high seas,” says Paredes.

Whether in national waters or on the high seas, potential sites usually have special qualities—they’re home to unique organisms, are relatively pristine, or have a good chance of recovering from previous damage. But other factors also come into play. “It’s not just science that decides, it’s also politics and economics,” says Villagomez.

In most cases, the places chosen for large-scale protection have few people and little fishing activity, and are created by countries with a history of conservation. Two-thirds are in the overseas territories of wealthy nations—in fact 99.5 percent of highly protected US marine reserves are in US Pacific territories or Hawai‘i says Villagomez. Most of France’s protected areas are likewise around its territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

While the exact procedure will differ depending on the country, government scientists, environmental groups, or Indigenous communities are usually the ones to identify prospective MPAs. A lengthy review process with draft regulations and public consultations follows before any official designation. It is a complicated process in Canada, says Barron, where the provinces have jurisdiction over the seabed, while DFO regulates fishing and Transport Canada is responsible for shipping. “The need to bring together all stakeholders can be challenging when [creating the MPA] is not a priority for all of them,” she says.

Economic concerns focused on maximizing the activities allowed in an MPA often result in watered-down protections and a reduction in the protected area’s size.

On average, it takes around 11 years for an MPA to be established with a management plan in place, according to a 2021 report by CPAWS. But sometimes the process is even more drawn out. “There are sites we’ve been working on for 30 years,” says Barron.

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What are the different levels of protection?

Continuing with the theme of “it’s complicated,” there are two widely accepted ways to categorize MPAs: the IUCN categories and Protected Planet’s MPA Guide.

The IUCN has six categories of protected areas based on their purpose and level of protection, but these were developed for land-based conservation so they don’t always translate perfectly to marine conservation. Category 3, for example, natural monuments or features, is focused on geological formations and is rarely relevant to MPAs. Since the primary concern in ocean conservation is often how much fishing or other human activity is allowed, the other categories are more useful when considering an MPA’s level of protection.

Categories 1a and 1b, strict nature reserves and wilderness areas, offer the most protection. In marine terms, these are strict “no-take” MPAs, where regulations prohibit all commercial fishing and other industrial uses, and only light human activity is allowed.

Category 2, national parks, is highly protective but might allow nonextractive human activities—and in some specific cases, small-scale fishing—that contribute to local economies without reducing the effectiveness of conservation measures.

Category 4, habitat or species management areas, focuses on a particular species or habitat that requires continuous protection, sometimes in the form of active interventions like artificial habitat creation. They can also form part of a larger protected area.

Category 5, protected landscapes or seascapes, is the most flexible category of protection. It covers a body of land or ocean with an explicit conservation plan, but can accommodate a variety of for-profit activities such as ecotourism, as well as traditional practices that promote sustainable biodiversity and communities that live within and sustainably use the area.

Category 6, protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources, can allow human activities that have little permanent impact on the ecosystem, but the category is intended for small-scale commercial fishing, not large industrial fleets.

Because the IUCN definitions do not all neatly map onto marine conservation goals, a group of scientists and environmental NGOs created the MPA Guide, a simpler framework that focuses on the level of protection a given MPA offers.

The MPA Guide has four levels of protection—fully protected, highly protected, lightly protected, and minimally protected—which are based on whether seven different activities are permitted, and what impact they might have.

The activities are mining, dredging, anchoring, infrastructure, aquaculture, fishing, and nonextractive activities, and the more of these that are allowed in an area, the lower down the scale of protection the MPA ranks. But some are considered more harmful than others. “Mining, for example, is so destructive that it automatically disqualifies an area from being an MPA,” says Pikitch, one of the coauthors of the guide.

Other activities can still be allowed, though they will reduce the level of protection, says Pikitch. Dredging, depending on how much impact it has, could be compatible with a minimally or lightly protected area, while small-scale infrastructure like navigation lights or artificial reefs could still be allowed in a highly protected area. Aquaculture that is intended to help restore the ecosystem, such as oyster reefs, is compatible with highly or even fully protected areas, but aquaculture like salmon farms would downgrade the level of protection.

Fishing is the most common activity that determines how well an MPA is protected. To qualify as fully protected by the MPA Guide, an area must be no take, with no fishing allowed at all. In areas where fishing is allowed, the gear type and impact of the fishery will determine the level of protection. Any industrial fishing disqualifies an area from protection.

The MPA Guide makes it easy for anyone to understand the levels of protection. The website features videos explaining the criteria, and has a simple, interactive decision tree that leads users through basic questions to evaluate how well a given area is protected. Barron and her colleagues at CPAWS assessed 18 Canadian MPAs using the guide and found that Canada has tended to create large but weakly protected areas. “The science is clear that the more strongly protected an area is, the more effective it is,” says Barron. “More activities reduce the overall benefits.”

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How are MPAs managed?

Good monitoring, management, and enforcement are essential to the effectiveness of MPAs. “If we’re not monitoring them, we don’t know how well they are doing,” says Barron.

As with creating MPAs, managing them is the responsibility of individual countries. The UN and IUCN have lots of advice, but ultimately it’s up to governments to support their own conservation programs.

Even within a single country, a wide spectrum of people and organizations may be in charge of monitoring and enforcement, ranging from local communities up to the top levels of government. The national government is usually responsible for areas within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while local or state governments, or even private individuals or groups, manage waters closer to shore. In Fiji, for example, local Indigenous communities hold and control customary fishing rights in qoliqoli nearshore.

In the United States, the US Coast Guard is in charge of patrolling MPAs and enforcing the rules, in cooperation with partners from NOAA and state agencies. They perform air and sea patrols and board vessels to monitor MPAs and ensure the rules are being followed, and they gather evidence of infractions.

Meaghan Brosnan is a retired member of the US Coast Guard and senior director of the marine program for WildAid, an organization that supports local conservation efforts. She says there is also an important education and outreach aspect to the work. To prevent people from breaking the law unwittingly, those managing MPAs need to collaborate with local communities and stakeholders, everyone from tourism operators to commercial fishers. “When engaged effectively, they’ll be your allies in protecting the resources they rely on,” she says.

Pikitch has seen the success of local management firsthand in her research in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, where she says the local communities were more effective than the national governments at monitoring and enforcing conservation rules. While this is not always the case in every country, it is perhaps more likely in poorer ones where the government lacks the resources to effectively monitor and enforce their ocean territories. “It’s hard if you don’t have the infrastructure or people to do the job,” she says. “But MPAs managed by locals with a vested interest can be the best managed MPAs in the world.”

Things get more complicated on the high seas, where the ocean beyond each country’s EEZ is owned by everybody and nobody. So the management of resources like fishing and deep-sea mining in international waters has, until now, been largely ad hoc, says Villagomez, requiring individual negotiations with organizations that have competing priorities and overlapping jurisdictions. The recent BBNJ agreement should help coordinate and simplify the process by bringing together stakeholders from different sectors at a single table to negotiate the creation and management of MPAs on the high seas. “It’s not perfect. The stakeholders are not required to agree, but they do have to show up to the table,” says Villagomez.

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What does a successful MPA look like?

Successful MPAs tend to have five key features, according to a 2014 study in Nature: they are no take, well enforced, more than 10 years old, larger than 100 square kilometers, and isolated by deep water or sand. The more of these features present in an MPA, the more effective it will be.

By these metrics, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai‘i is a prime example of a successful MPA, checking the boxes on all five features. The protected area northwest of the main Hawaiian archipelago has been afforded at least some protection since 1903 and was designated a national monument in 2006. At more than 1.5 million square kilometers, it is one of the largest MPAs in the world and has strong and well-enforced regulations. Those last two points are the most important, says Villagomez. The reason Papahānaumokuākea is so successful really comes down to the money put behind it, to ensure it is properly monitored and managed.

Well-managed MPAs can have big impacts on biodiversity. Mexico established the Cabo Pulmo National Park at the tip of the Baja California peninsula in 1995. By 2009, fish biomass had increased by over 460 percent, and the biomass of key predators such as sharks increased by 11 times. Much of that success can be attributed to the support and leadership of local people.

Unfortunately, many MPAs fail to live up to the standards set out in the 2014 study. Many, often referred to as “paper parks,” are designated, but do not have management plans in place, or do not have the money, infrastructure, or human resources to effectively implement them. At least 60 percent of MPAs around the world lack the resources and capacity for effective management and enforcement, according to Brosnan. So WildAid runs a program to help developing countries build their capacity in five areas critical to conservation: community engagement, surveillance and enforcement, policies and consequences, training and mentorship, and sustainable funding. The program started 25 years ago in the Galapagos Islands, which now have one of the best compliance and enforcement systems in the developing world, says Brosnan. Currently WildAid is working in 14 countries in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. “We don’t leave until they have what they need to be sustainable long term,” she says.

The most important factor for the long-term success of MPAs is to have reliable, steady funding. While many are set up with philanthropic donations, that can’t be counted on indefinitely, so managers must find other ways to fund their activities. One model, used by the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire, is to charge a user fee for scuba diving in the national park, with the fees supporting the park’s operations. That helped Bonaire develop one of the first financially sustainable marine parks in the world, says Pikitch, but left it vulnerable to unexpected events. “The pandemic did a real number on places that relied on tourism,” she says. “It’s a good model, but you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.”

The IUCN Green List offers a global standard to evaluate how well an MPA is meeting its conservation goals, looking at 17 criteria across four main themes: good governance, sound design and planning, effective management, and successful conservation outcomes. Those that meet the standard are the most highly regarded conservation areas in the world. To be considered, protected areas first undergo a self-assessment by their managers and are then reviewed by independent experts. So far 61 areas have been added to the Green List, of which eight are MPAs. Paredes says there is currently a big push to get another 100 protected areas around the world certified by the Green List.

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What is the role of Indigenous people in MPA design?

Including Indigenous communities and knowledge in the design, implementation, and governance of MPAs is vital because their historical waters often end up incorporated into protected areas. “It’s the Indigenous people that live there who have to live with these decisions, so they should be leading the design and implementation of these protected areas,” says Villagomez.

And while there is a lot of overlap between the values of Indigenous peoples and conservation groups, there is often strife between them if the work is not done in a collaborative way. NGOs often trip up by trying to dictate how a protected area should be designed and run, without considering the Indigenous perspective, says Villagomez. But if Indigenous communities are included in the planning from the beginning, things will go more smoothly.

And, says Paredes, promoting bottom-up processes that start with local and Indigenous communities will lead to more successful MPAs in the future.

Barron points out that it is essential to embrace Indigenous leadership in conservation as part of reconciliation, and also as the best hope of meeting the goal of protecting 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. “Eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is on Indigenous lands, so this is recognizing the work that is already being done,” she says.

Often, Indigenous communities create protected areas simply by continuing the same activities they have been practicing for hundreds or thousands of years. Some of these are small and tied to cultural practices that may have little to do with conservation directly. On Villagomez’s home island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, an elder from the Refaluwasch, or Carolinian, community told him that the Refaluwasch believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside on a set of sacred rocks offshore, and so no one is allowed to fish in the vicinity, which has effectively turned the area into an OECM. “The purpose is to respect their ancestors, but the outcome is pretty much a protected area,” says Villagomez.

In other places, Indigenous communities are taking a more direct and official role in the creation of protected areas by championing a type of conservation area known as Indigenous protected and conserved areas—areas where Indigenous governments have the primary role in setting the boundaries and management plans to protect and conserve ecosystems through their own laws, governance, and knowledge systems.

In Canada, 15 First Nations have partnered with the federal and provincial governments to adopt an action plan to create a network of MPAs off the coast of British Columbia, an area known as the northern shelf bioregion, or the Great Bear Sea. The plan is breaking new ground in terms of Indigenous co-governance and will protect culturally important species such as salmon, while ensuring a variety of resource uses and activities that sustain coastal livelihoods.

Farther south, in California, the Chumash people have proposed the first tribally nominated marine sanctuary in the United States to protect their ecosystems and sacred sites from oil exploration, and generate economic development and jobs through ecotourism.

Barron says these and other Indigenous-led conservation initiatives are a sign of how the conservation movement is evolving to acknowledge the importance of all forms of knowledge. “They have a deep and long-standing knowledge of these places, and Western science is just catching up,” she says. “This is the future of MPAs, both in Canada and around the world.”

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What are the biggest challenges?

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge facing MPAs around the world is a lack of funding. In general, most MPAs are underfunded and under-resourced, and it is impossible to have good management of an MPA without the money and people to do the work, says Pikitch.

No one perfect model for funding ocean conservation exists, so it often has to be assembled from many different sources on a case-by-case basis. As there is no private territory in the oceans, public government funding should at least cover the basics of surveillance and enforcement via national coast guards or other organizations, says Paredes. That can then be complemented with private philanthropic funding from NGOs or charities, and/or payments for services such as the diving fees charged in Bonaire. Philanthropic funding alone is not enough, but it can encourage governments and other NGOs to provide matching funds, he says.

A promising new funding model catching on in conservation circles is known as project finance for permanence, or PFP. This approach brings together everyone involved, from government, to donors, to local communities, and ensures that the necessary policies and funding to meet specific conservation goals over a defined, long-term time frame are in place from the start. This helps avoid a scramble for piecemeal fundraising that can lead to conservation initiatives stalling or fading away. One of the world’s first PFP conservation projects was the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, and now the Great Bear Sea MPA network will use a similar model.

It’s often a challenge to establish an MPA where there is a lot of human activity; it’s hard to get people with a vested interest to curtail—or even stop—their use. The fishing industry sometimes opposes the creation of MPAs, arguing that they lead to economic losses from reduced catches, or simply displace fishing effort elsewhere. But a study of fishing in and around Mexico’s Revillagigedo National Park, the largest MPA in North America, found that while fishing activity declined by 82 percent in the MPA after it was established in 2017, there was no evidence of reduced catches for industrial fishing vessels operating nearby.

Nevertheless, many of the largest MPAs have been created in remote areas with small populations and little extractive activity, says Pikitch. The problem is, a lot of those places are already protected. Of the rest of the ocean, more than 90 percent is currently open to fishing, mining, and other extractive activities. To meet the 30 percent target, governments will need to forge agreements with the people who live in and use those areas. Imposing top-down structures can lead to failure, says Paredes, but bottom-up processes supported by local people can be much more successful.

It is also challenging to get people to understand the benefits of ocean conservation, says Barron. We don’t always have the same connection with the ocean as we do with plants and animals on land. “It’s more ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” she says. So we have to get better at demonstrating the benefits, both economic and social, of strong ocean protections.

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How do we plan for climate change?

Even after an MPA is successfully established, funded, and managed, another threat looms: climate change. What happens if rising temperatures and changes to ocean chemistry or marine currents kill the species the MPA is intended to protect, or force them to move?

One suggestion is to have mobile MPAs that move with the species they are trying to protect. But that raises all sorts of issues. Setting up a stationary MPA is difficult enough—imagine how much more complicated it would be if the borders start migrating through the territory of countries or people who were not involved in the initial discussions. “From an implementation point of view, that would be very hard,” says Paredes.

A more practical approach is to make sure any new MPA is large enough that it contains all of the target species’ important life history sites—the places where they eat, make babies, and have babies. It is also important to target areas expected to be vulnerable to climate change. By reducing other threats—such as fishing and mining—the protected area can become more resilient in the face of change.

Creating networks of MPAs can also help by providing protective stepping stones for species that are forced to migrate to more suitable habitats as their old ones become less hospitable.

One of the most important things is to make sure that planning for climate change is an integral part of the process of creating MPAs, says Barron. At present, it is not always an automatic consideration. But we do have good models that will help us predict how the oceans will change in the future, and those models can have a bigger role in our planning processes.

Though ocean conservation will not solve climate change on its own, it is an important part of the solution. A healthy marine ecosystem can help increase the resilience of the planet at large, says Paredes. “It’s a win-win. We can protect biodiversity, and help with climate change by boosting carbon sinks.”

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Cite this Article:

Cite this Article: Brian Owens “Marine Protected Areas, Explained,” Hakai Magazine, Jun 8, 2023, accessed July 19th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/features/marine-protected-areas-explained/.


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