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MPA Quality Assessments

We aim to track protected areas that effectively contribute to conservation goals by measuring the protection levels of MPAs and clarifying the conservation benefits they are likely to provide.

Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/Sea Legacy

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Momentum to protect the global ocean in marine protected areas (MPAs) is greater than it has ever been, as evidenced by international conservation goals. However, progress has been hindered for a variety of reasons, including confusion about what ‘protection’ means and the likely conservation outcomes of a particular type of MPA. These issues result in MPAs with minimal protections, confusion surrounding global progress, and arguments that detract attention from the need for meaningful protections.

To confront this issue, conservation experts and organizations have created systematic, science-based assessments for characterizing MPAs. As scientific research has continued to accumulate on the magnitude of biodiversity protection and ecological benefits provided by different MPA types, we have directed our focus toward tracking those with meaningful benefits.

Regulation-based Classification System (RBCS)

Developed by researchers in the European Union, RBCS characterizes MPAs according to their regulations. This system was developed as a tool to managers, scientists and users of MPAs as an alternative to the IUCN protected area categories (which focus on the intent of a protected area). With the RBCS online tool, you can classify any MPA based on the activities allowed and/or compare the conservation value of various zoning designs and regulations combinations. A study of the Regulations-Based Classification System validated this approach to classifying MPAs by finding a strong correlation between an MPA’s RBCS classification and its conservation outcomes.

View the RBCS decision tree.

The MPA Guide

The MPA Guide collaboration aims to provide a clear, science-based framework to discuss and measure the conservation outcomes of MPAs based on their stage of establishment and level of protection. The MPA Guide endorses the IUCN definition of an MPA, recognizes four Stages of Establishment of MPAs, articulates four Levels of Protection of MPAs, and specifies the likely outcomes from each of the four Levels of Protection. The protection level of an MPA is determined using a decision-tree framework that assesses the site’s regulated activities. The MPA Guide will motivate more meaningful protection and can be used by governments and MPA planners to better understand how the regulations of their MPAs relate to conservation outcomes.

Check out the Graphic Guide to MPAs.

Learn more about the MPA Guide.

Blue Parks

Marine Conservation Institute worked with a council of scientists to translate science into a rigorous set of criteria against which to evaluate the biodiversity benefits of MPAs. These criteria identify the area’s value for marine biodiversity, implementation and strength of regulations, compliance and enforcement, the conservation value of its size and design, management effectiveness, and ecological representation and connectivity. Evaluation of regulation strength uses the RBCS score.

MPAs that are nominated for a Blue Park Award are evaluated against these criteria, reviewed by marine conservation scientists and provided feedback with recommendations for improvement whether they meet the Blue Park standard or not.

View the Blue Parks criteria.

Our Role

Marine Conservation Institute scientists have led and participated in MPA Guide expert working groups to standardize assessment methodology and shared definitions, as well as performed initial case studies and pilot test runs of several working drafts of the MPA Guide criteria, including a collection of the largest and most highly-protected MPAs. Our assessments and large-scale review of MPA Guide decision-tree steps has helped support development of the guide and has been critical to developing a viable and practical suite of criteria.