Marine Protected Areas

A marine protected area (MPA) is a section of the ocean where a government has regulated human activities more than in the surrounding waters. There are different levels of limitations on activities; some MPAs allow recreational use only, some allow fishing, even commercial fishing, some don’t allow people to enter at all.

Like a national park on land, the idea behind an MPA is to protect the area by reducing human impact on the marine environment. The primary focus varies; some are created to protect biodiversity, some to protect certain habitats, others to protect shipwrecks or other historical areas, and some are focused on sustainable use of natural resources.

Roughly 12 percent of land areas around the world are under some sort of protection but less than six percent of the ocean is protected in any way.

Marine Protected Areas are underwater sanctuaries for marine wildlife to help them recover from overfishing and to protect vital marine habitats including mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef ecosystems. MPAs are among the most effective methods of biodiversity conservation. Numerous studies have shown that when the ocean is given time without human pressure to recover, it can thrive.

The benefits of an MPA:

  • Increase in the biodiversity of the area by an average of 21%
  • Increase in number of animals of each species in the area
  • Healthier ecosystems are more likely to mitigate and adapt to climate changes
  • “Natural” area acts as a reference for research, helping scientists to better understand and protect the habitat
  • Increase in abundance of fish in areas adjacent to the MPA, creating larger yields for fishermen; an increase in MPAs would boost global fish catch by roughly 20%

There is a worldwide movement underway to protect 30% of marine areas by 2030 in order to maintain biodiversity, slow extinctions, and maintain a steady climate. Track marine protection globally using the Marine Protection Atlas.

Creating more marine protected areas is only part of the solution. The quality of the MPA matters as much, if not more, than the quantity. The location, the size, and the level of protection afforded to an MPA all greatly affect its ability to protect biodiversity. Unfortunately, protecting an area on paper is not always the same as offering actual protection; proper management and enforcement are essential.

Location and Size
Selecting the location for an MPA is a critical step in ensuring its success. Proper research must be conducted to ensure that areas with high biodiversity, especially those under pressure from human use, are the ones chosen for protection. Unfortunately, these areas are often more difficult to protect as people do not want to relinquish their rights, due to the economic or social value. Therefore, MPAs are often placed in areas where there is already low human activity because these places face the least resistance to regulations.

Size is also an important factor. Studies have shown that the most successful MPAs are larger than 100 square kilometers (39 square miles). It stands to reason that in order to achieve conservation goals, the size of the home region for the species being protected must be considered; a shark needs more room to move than a giant clam.

Additionally, local support and collaboration are essential when selecting a location for a marine protected area. The local community will be critical to gather support for the creation of the MPA, and more importantly, to aid in enforcement of MPA regulations once it is created. It is only with their involvement that lasting recovery of species and habitats will happen.

Level of Protection
Protection in marine protected areas has a wide range; from not allowing human entry to allowing commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration within the boundaries. Not surprisingly, partially protected areas do not have the same results with biodiversity and abundance as parks where “no-take zone” (fishing is completely banned) regulations are enforced. No-take zones increase the number of fish by 2-3 times in as little as 2-4 years.

Ideally, all marine protected areas would be no-take zones, but practically that is difficult to achieve. Two-thirds of the world’s MPAs allow some form of fishing. In cases like these where a complete ban on fishing is not possible, the level of fishing allowed has a huge effect on marine life.

One of the most destructive types of fishing practiced is bottom trawling; an industrial fishing method that drags huge nets, weighted at the bottom, along the seafloor scooping up (or crushing) everything in their path. Valuable species and habitats are destroyed and take years to recover. Sadly, bottom trawling is allowed in many marine protected areas: 97% of MPAs off the UK coast allow bottom trawling, in Scotland, only 6 of 31 MPAs designed for conservation restrict bottom trawling, and in the EU, 59% of MPAs still permit trawling.

In order to be most effective and really make a difference in conservation, marine protected areas must truly protect marine habitats and species.

Obstacles to Creating More MPAs
The current movement to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030 currently has a lot of momentum. But it is critical that the 30% isn’t just the cheapest and easiest to protect, but is representative of the diversity of the planet’s diverse marine species and habitats. This isn’t always easy to achieve.

Each country has authority over their coastal waters; generally within 200 nautical miles from the coast. While that means governments could create MPAs in these waters, interest groups (industrial fishing, oil & gas exploration, etc.) often oppose any limits on their use. Additionally, the proposal of a no-take or no-entry zone can receive push-back from individuals who enjoy the coastal area for recreational use. It is this push-back that often causes governments to compromise with interest groups resulting in a less successful partially protected area rather than a fully protected one.

The area of the ocean outside of individual government control is called the high seas. Protection of the high seas has even more challenges. Without one governmental body in charge, intra-governmental efforts must be negotiated, involving years of campaigning, treaty ratification, and issues with the funding of enforcement. In order to achieve conservation goals, every MPA must have financial and technological backing for enforcement procedures.

As with all ocean issues, spreading awareness is a major step to creating change; let people know what is happening to our ocean. Be sure to use your voice, as a voter and as a consumer to encourage positive change. And think about your daily actions and their impact.

Spread Awareness
Talk with others about the ocean, the importance of marine ecosystems, and protection of aquatic wildlife. Share information about marine protected areas and how they make a difference. Let people know what they can do to protect ocean habitats.

Support Marine Protected Areas
Learn about and support local and national marine protected areas. Spend time there and consider volunteering; remember that local support is key to a successful MPA.
When you travel, visit marine protected areas to show your support. The MPA will likely have beautiful things to see; fully protected MPAs have more than twice the number of divers and snorkelers than unprotected coastal areas. Just be sure to take only pictures, and leave only footprints!

Encourage Creation of Additional Marine Protected Areas
Tell your legislators that you think protecting ocean wildlife and taking action on climate change are important. Talk to your government about increasing levels of protection in local MPAs and enforcement of regulations already in effect. Support proposals for new MPAs.
Right now world leaders are considering three new Southern Ocean MPAs around Antarctica: the East Antarctic, the Weddell Sea, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Sign this petition to show your support.

Support Organizations Making a Difference
Support the many conservation organizations working to create and protect marine sanctuaries. Many have online campaigns for the creation of new MPAs as well as opportunities to donate or volunteer. Help to spread their message!

Make Personal Changes for a Healthy Ocean

  • Don’t use single-use plastics (grocery bags, straws, take-away containers, bottles, etc.)
  • Reduce waste, use only what you need
  • Buy only sustainably fished seafood in restaurants and at supermarkets (regional seafood guides are available online)
  • Use organic foods that don’t use pesticides
  • Buy local to reduce the need for international shipping
  • Buy clothing made of natural fibers and, for synthetic materials, wash them in a washing bag to reduce microfibers entering the water
  • Reduce your carbon footprint: ride a bike, walk, use public transportation, attend virtual meetings and conferences, use renewable energy, reduce your meat consumption

Marine protected areas have so much support now – especially with the global 30×30 initiative! Many people are working to improve the ones we have and strategically create more around the world.

Please check out these (and others) and do what you can to lend them your support!

Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition
Inland Ocean Coalition
Marine Conservation Society
Global Fishing Watch
Sea Change Project
Blue Nature Alliance
Mission Blue

There are a number of marine protected area success stories. Not only are these great successes in and of themselves, but they serve as models for the rest of the world….meaningful conservation may not be easy, but it is possible and can be successful.

Cabo Pulmo, Mexico
In 1995, the village of Cabo Pulmo was designated as a protected area. Overnight 7111 hectares were off limits to fishermen who had used the area for decades. Nineteen years later, there was a 460% increase in biomass within the park and fishermen working outside the boundaries were incredibly successful. While not an easy transition, it is a model for others to emulate.

Bul Fishing Ban, Palau
In 2015, the Pacific Island nation of Palau banned fishing, mining and drilling in 80% of their waters. Unlike regulations in other parts of the world, Palau relied on an ancient tradition, bul, meaning prohibition, which has been used by local fishermen for centuries to maintain natural balance for future generations. By strategically rotating areas where fishing is allowed, they maintain resources in all areas.

Misool Marine Reserve, Raja Ampat, Indonesia
The Misool Marine Reserve began in 2005 as a partnership between the local communities and a private resort owned by passionate conservationists. The Reserve leased the land and water from the local villages and designated it as a no-take zone (no fishing, collecting eggs, or shark finning), the first in the region. Now the Reserve is twice the size of Singapore. The area has seen an increase in fish by an average of 250% (some sites surpass 600%), 25 times more sharks than outside of the reserve, and 25 times more manta sightings. An incredible success story of how the ocean can heal itself if left alone!

Community- Based Conservation, East Timor
East Timor, in the coral triangle, is home to the most biodiverse reefs in the world. It is the newest and least-visited country in Southeast Asia, and has limited resources. Nonetheless, the country is determined to protect them using traditional laws of Tara Bandu, an agreement between the people, their ancestors, and the environment. Tara Bandu prohibits use of a particular resource and is enacted when the local population see it diminishing. The local community decides what to protect, for the good of the local community. When the stakeholders make the decisions and feel the effects, the environment wins.

Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, Antarctica
In an example of intra-governmental marine protection, the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area was established in Antarctica in 2016. It took years of negotiation before all 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources signed off on the MPA. It is now the largest MPA in the world (an area larger than Mexico) with 70% designated as a no-take zone. This gives a huge sanctuary to at least 10 species of marine mammals, numerous seabirds, and a vast array of fish and invertebrate species.