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What Is A Marine Protected Area?

Misconceptions are common, including the belief that all MPAs are no-take or no-fishing areas, as well as the belief that all MPAs are managed at a federal level.

The term “Marine Protected Area,” or MPA, is in the news quite frequently, but what does it actually mean? If you ask 10 different people, you’ll likely get 10 different answers, because the concept of an MPA isn’t quite as simple as it may initially seem. When it comes to defining an MPA, misconceptions are common, including the belief that all MPAs are no-take or no-fishing areas, as well as the belief that all MPAs are managed at a federal level. While these statements are certainly true for some MPAs, in reality there is no single definition for the term. For example, while 41 percent of the United States’ waters enjoy protection of some kind, less than three percent is established as a no-take zone. Moreover, while some MPAs are federally run, many more are managed at an international, state, tribal, territorial or community level. 

Instead, the term “MPA” is more of an umbrella concept, one that incorporates several different categories, each with its own set of limitations and management techniques. Even more confusingly, the same category may manifest itself differently across national borders. For example, while marine reserves constitute no-take zones in most countries, in others (like Kenya and Belize), sustenance fishing is allowed to support local communities. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) loosely defines an MPA as “any area of the intertidal or sub-tidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.” Broadly then, an MPA is any area that includes a marine ecosystem that is afforded some level of protection of natural or cultural resources. 

IUCN splits MPAs into seven distinct management categories; thereby giving an idea of how different one protected area can be from the next. The strictest of these categories is the marine reserve, which usually offers maximum protection and prohibits the removal of any marine resources (ranging from fishing to oil and gas mining). Others include the national marine park, which usually prohibits the extraction of resources but allows light recreation, such as scuba diving; national monuments or features, which are established to protect historical or cultural sites, such as shipwrecks, or native fishing grounds; and habitat/species management areas, which are established to protect a specific species or endangered habitat, such as spawning grounds or fragile seagrass beds. In some places, protective measures are only seasonally or temporarily enforced to accommodate the breeding seasons of certain species, or to give populations that are in decline a chance to recover. 

In addition to these seven categories, there are other, related protected areas that are not technically MPAs but serve a very similar purpose, for example, UNESCO’s network of Man and Biosphere Reserves, or Mission Blue’s Hope Spots. Together, these different protected areas work to alleviate the issues affecting the world’s oceans, including pollution, overfishing and ocean acidification. MPAs can also be a source of conflict, however, particularly when they are seen by indigenous communities to impinge on traditional fishing or land-use rights. Often, MPAs are similarly criticized for hindering human development, and for draining national resources in terms of the cost of enforcing their regulations. For this reason, the most successful MPAs are those that work with local communities, involving stakeholders across a wide demographic in the management of their resources. 

If an MPA is run correctly and effectively, it can positively impact the economy and empower local communities. By creating a healthy marine ecosystem, MPAs support sustainable fisheries in the surrounding areas, while also attracting tourism that not only increases a region’s annual income but also is invaluable in terms of job creation. The environmental benefits of a well-managed MPA are even more important, and include providing a refuge for endangered species, protecting critical habitats, sustaining biodiversity, and combating the effects of external problems like climate change. 

As of 2014, there were more than 6,500 MPAs in existence globally, sadly a number that accounts for just 2.09 percent of the world’s oceans. Perhaps in time, as more people come to understand and appreciate the value of these protected areas, that percentage will increase, and our marine environments will stand an improved chance of survival as a result.