5 Facts About Successful Marine Protected Areas

Not all MPAs are created equal. Learn the features that help ensure environmental protection works.


Marine protected areas (MPA) are protected areas of seas, oceans or large lakes. MPAs restrict human activity for a conservation purpose, typically to protect natural or cultural resources.” – Wikipedia



It’s not enough to merely designate a marine protected area — a few key features are essential to its success.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) help reduce stress on marine ecosystems and protect spawning and nursery areas, but not only animals benefit — people benefit from the storm protection provided by habitats such as barrier islands, coral reefs, and wetlands, and gain economically from tourism and fishing.

More than 1,600 MPAs in the United States protect about 41 percent of marine waters in some capacity, 3 percent within no-take protected areas.

The Convention on Biological Diversity — a coalition of 168 countries — set a goal of protecting 10 percent of ocean waters by 2020, but scientists say that figure needs to be closer to 25 or 30 percent. Either way, protecting a certain percentage of water isn’t enough — it must be the right percentage.

“Oceans are not homogeneous, and not all MPAs are created equal,” says Rodolphe Devillers, Ph.D., a researcher and professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. “Protecting 1 percent one place does not equal protecting 1 percent somewhere else.” When Devillers and other researchers examined protected areas around the globe, they found that most MPA sites were chosen to minimize costs and conflict and, as a result, make almost no real contribution to conservation or protection of species or habitats. “MPAs are management tools to protect vulnerable marine life from human activities. Typically, areas most used by humans tend to be the ones that need the most protection — but they also are the hardest to sell politically.”

Overall, prohibiting extractive activities dramatically boosts MPA success. Yet only 1 percent of the world’s oceans and less than 3 percent of the U.S. MPA area is currently designated no-take.

In no-take reserves worldwide, research documented an average increase of 446 percent in total marine life. Density — or number of plants and animals in a given area — increased an average of 166 percent, and the number of species present increased an average of 21 percent.

No-take requires enforcement, another key feature of successful MPAs. This presents particular challenges in isolated locations, ironically another key characteristic of successful MPAs.

To overcome this challenge, the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C., and Satellite Applications Catapult in the United Kingdom created a virtual-monitoring system, which so far monitors 10 locations worldwide.

Other features of successful MPAs include an age of 10 years or older and a size larger than 100 square kilometers.

“People want to believe that MPAs are like a magic wand, that with one fell swoop you can achieve bold and aggressive conservation outcomes,” says Doug Rader, chief oceans scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “That unfortunately is not the case. But where MPAs are designed to achieve or contribute to a conservation goal, and where a fair and science-based need is recognized, I don’t think there is a case that has been unsuccessful.”

Behind Every Successful MPA…
Tortugas North Ecological Reserve, Florida
Established in 2001 as a no-take reserve.

» Three commercially important fish species increased in abundance/size within three years.
» Responses were stronger in the reserve than the fished MPA for two of the three species, and stronger for all three species in fully fished areas.
» No financial loss for commercial or recreational fisheries, as well as higher coral coverage in the reserve than the MPA and unprotected sites.

Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park, Kenya
Established in 1973; fishing prohibited in the 1990s.

» Fish biomass 11.6 times higher inside the reserve than in fully fished areas, and 2.8 times greater than in a fished MPA.
» Greater biodiversity and better protection for branching corals than a fished MPA.
» Higher fish diversity, approximately 10 more fish species per area sampled than in a fished MPA.

Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, Baja California, Mexico
Created in the Gulf of California in 1995, no-take enforced by locals. Scientific surveys in 1999 and 2009 found no change in other Gulf of California MPAs, while at Cabo Pulmo:

» Predator biomass increased more than 1,000 percent.
» Total fish biomass increased 463 percent.
» Density of fish on the reef — 1.72 tons per acre — is some of the highest recorded anywhere in the world.

Five Easy Pieces
Successful marine protected areas around the world have five features in common, according to an analysis of 87 MPAs:

  1. No-take zone

  2. Effective enforcement

  3. Age greater than 10 years

  4. Size larger than 100 square kilometers

  5. Isolation


Source: 5 Facts About Successful Marine Protected Areas | Sport Diver

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