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Marine Conservation

Protect Planet Ocean is an initiative by IUCN with the collaboration with UNEP-WCMC
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What are marine protected areas (MPAs)?


Definition of MPA


Sanganeb Atoll Lighthouse, Mohammed M.A. Kotb, PERSGA
Sanganeb Atoll Lighthouse,
Mohammed A. Kotb, PERSGA

A marine protected area (MPA) is essentially a space in the ocean where human activities are more strictly regulated than the surrounding waters - similar to parks we have on land. These places are given special protections for natural or historic marine resources by local, state, territorial, native, regional, or national authorities. Authorities differ substantially from nation to nation.



There are many formal definitions of marine protected areas, but the most broadly used definition is the IUCN definition:


'A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values'


Types of MPA


There are many kinds of marine protected areas that meet this broad definition, and which can have a wide range of conservation objectives. Such objectives can include:


Ecological objectives:


- To ensure the long-term viability and maintaining the genetic diversity of marine species and systems;

- To protect depleted, threatened, rare or endangered species and populations;

- To preserve habitats considered critical for the survival and/or lifecycles of species, including economically important species;

- To prevent outside activities from detrimentally affecting the marine protected areas;


Human objectives:


- To provide for the continued welfare of people affected by the creation of marine protected areas;

- To preserve, protect, and manage historical and cultural sites and natural aesthetic values of marine and estuarine areas, for present and future generations;

- To facilitate the interpretation of marine and estuarine systems for the purposes of conservation, education and tourism;

- To accommodate with appropriate management systems a broad spectrum of human activities compatible with the primary goal in marine and estuarine settings; and

- To provide for research and training, and for monitoring the environmental effect of human activities, including the direct and indirect effects of development and adjacent land-use practices.


Some people confuse marine reserves, where extraction of any resources is prohibited (no-take), as the only type of MPA. MPAs may include marine reserves, as well as other zones in which partial protection is afforded (seasonal closures, catch limits, etc.). Many MPAs are multiple-use areas, where a variety of uses are allowed. For example, there are many different kinds of MPAs in U.S. waters including national parks, wildlife refuges, monuments and marine sanctuaries, fisheries closures, critical habitat, habitat areas of particular concern, state parks, conservation areas, estuarine reserves and preserves, and numerous others. While a few sites exist as no-take marine reserves, the vast majority of MPAs, both in terms of numbers and area, are open for fishing, diving, boating, and other recreational and commercial uses.


The types of human activities that are regulated, and the strictness of the regulations, is therefore largely dependent upon the objectives of the MPA.


Types of regulation and MPA management techniques


MPA Community Surveillance, Bamboung

MPA Community Surveillance, Bamboung

There are a range of management techniques that MPA managers can use. These techniques can be broadly categorized into ways of prohibiting and limiting activity (Kenchington and Kelleher 1995):


Prohibition: Absolute prohibition of access to a prescribed area is the simplest form of regulation. It is a form of control that establishes a clear yes/no basis – if a person is found in the area, he has violated the regulation. Prohibition of certain activities within a prescribed area is another prohibitive technique. For example, if fishing is prohibited in a specific area and a person is caught fishing there, he is in violation.


Limitations: Both terrestrial and marine protected areas around the world often allow some level of human activity, especially if it involves recreation, nature appreciation, education, or research. The management challenge is to design and enforce measures that limit allowed human activities to levels that do not cause harmful or unacceptable impacts. Limitations are also more challenging than prohibitions – they are more complex for area users to understand and may be more difficult for managers to enforce. However, limiting rather than prohibiting activities in an area is usually more acceptable to area users and may be more easily implemented. Limitation by spatial control involves regulating activities specifically to a part or parts of the MPA.


- Zonal management: Spatial control of activities.

- Temporal control: Management changes over time, such as a closed fishing season. For example, this may be used to protect spawning areas for fish or breeding habitats for seabirds.

- Equipment restriction: Regulation of the use of equipment or technology that is efficient for its purpose in the short term but damaging to resources in the long term (e.g., trawl restrictions).

- Quotas: Setting limits on the allowable harvest with the goal of leaving enough of the resource to replenish itself. Quotas are most commonly applied towards fishing.

- Licenses or permits: Issuing permission, through official documentation, for a person or people to engage in specific activities in the MPA. Licenses and/or permits can be issued based on skill, resource allocation, or other characteristics.


MPAs are just one of many marine resource management tools. MPAs primarily regulate human activities by segregating them spatially. MPAs alone cannot address problems such as pollution, climate change, or overfishing. Other management strategies are needed to complement marine reserves. They are most effective when used in conjunction with other management measures.


Constructive public engagement in MPA planning is vital to achieving conservation goals; both in establishing sites and in ensuring their effective long-term stewardship. In many cases, different authorities and agencies seek public input on the design, location, and management plan for new MPAs or no-take areas within existing MPAs. Approaches used to acquire stakeholder input varies widely depending on agency-specific requirements, policies, timelines, and other constraints. Public engagement in these very different planning processes ranges from sustained substantive involvement over several years, to more limited participation focused mainly on commenting on internally generated preliminary plans.


The optimum size, number, and location of MPAs are determined by the management goals of a particular area. There are three basic designs that are most commonly used and discussed: a small single area, a large single area, or a network of areas. A small area may be used to protect a unique habitat, a site-specific life cycle event (such as spawning aggregation that occurs in a single area), or a unique shipwreck. A large single area may be used to protect species nursery grounds, representative habitat from either fishing pressure or destruction of habitat, or a large collection of historic vessels. A network of MPAs may be used to protect habitats needed for the diversity of life stages common among marine species to ensure that larval transport occurs throughout an entire region.


Most management systems for MPAs will use a variety of management approaches to achieve the MPA objectives.


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