How Marine Protected Areas Work

If your next vacation involves the ocean, consider how supporting marine protected areas will help safeguard the environment for years to come.

Marine protected areas are known by many different names., from marine sanctuaries to marine reserves, no-take zones, or locally managed marine areas. These areas strive to create a more natural balance and minimize direct human impacts through regulations. Protected areas refer to the area of seabed and water column directly beneath physical points on the ocean’s surface. 

How do marine protected areas work?

Protected areas work by closely regulating human activity in an area of the ocean usually exposed to environmentally degrading activities. These include bottom-trawl fishing, jet skiing, recreational diving or snorkeling, and fish feeding. These areas may also protect the habitat of a particular species. They may simply be areas where no one is allowed to go, such as military training zones or beneath oil rigs. These areas, which have no legal protection, are called de facto protected areas. 

Why do we need them?

Humanity needs these areas because as we push the planet past its ability to resist climate change and population growth, the oceans are feeling the strain. Higher populations and increasing coastal population density mean that more people than ever are relying on fish protein as their main food source. Years of over-exploitation and problem denial have made the need for ocean protection more crucial than ever. Oceanic-protected areas are much harder to enforce than their land-based equivalents and only within the last 30 years have they been getting more attention from conservation managers and the general public.

In a changing climate and an era of intense industrial pollution, the oceans must work hard to absorb the additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This works only as long as the oceans are under-saturated with carbon, in the same way that only so much sugar dissolves in a glass of water. No one knows the exact point at which the ocean will become fully saturated with carbon dioxide and therefore we must investigate ways that we can help the ocean with this absorption process. The ocean contains around 40,000 gigatons (one gigaton equals one billion tons) of carbon. This figure is roughly 16 times larger than the amount of carbon in every land-based ecosystem, and around 60 times greater than the atmospheric content of carbon before 1750, when the industrial revolution began to push carbon content out of balance.

What else do marine protected areas do?

In “Why Mangroves are Essential to Your Next Great Dive,” the author mentions blue carbon, which is stored in marine environments. By protecting blue-carbon resources such as mangroves, sea grasses, salt marshes and coral reefs, humanity can ensure that the ocean maintains its ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Aside from their environmental value, marine-protected areas can also help us preserve social heritage and local culture. Local populations are far more likely to accept management intervention if an MPA considers their interests. 

Why should divers support MPAs?

For divers, MPAs can mean beautiful reefs, lots of fish, and crystal-clear waters. If they’re receiving the proper protection, reefs can be almost free from direct diver damage and fishing. This natural state also helps the reef cope with threats such as storms, land-based run off and oceanic trash. Protected areas can also include areas of the seabed that unsustainable fishing practices, storms or poor diving practices have damaged. By protecting these degraded areas and removing some pressure, the reef is better able to recover and restore some balance.

What about local populations?

Local populations should welcome MPAs because these areas help increase fish stocks overall. Populations won’t recover overnight. But, given time, scientists have proven that fish in and around an MPA grow larger and become more fertile. They also produce more offspring with higher survival rates. This exponentially increases the fish population and, therefore, the fishing yields. Madagascar octopus fisheries have most successfully documented this phenomenon. Rotational closures here have dramatically increased the catch success of the fishermen. Non-destructive fishing practices that do not modify habitat can exist in harmony with conservation objectives. In this way, we can balance the local population’s needs with conservation.

Protected areas can also be an economic draw for tourism. When managed correctly, through such programs as Green Fins, increases in tourism can add revenue to the local economy. Money derived from healthy ecosystems and a well-managed tourism industry can make a local shark population — worth a few dollars per pound at the local market — jump to tens of thousands of dollars per year in tourism income.

What can I do?

Governments and local communities have begun to recognize the importance of MPAs. Consequently, they are using these areas more and more successfully as tools for conservation. Visit the protected areas near you, whether they are dive-able sites or wetlands that house rare marine bird populations. 

By guest author Alan Kavanagh, project coordinator, The Reef-World Foundation

More Information

For more information, check out the Green Fins website to explore how you can make your next dive sustainable. Stay up-to-date on MPAs around the world at MPAtlas, and subscribe here for protected-area news delivered to your inbox.