MPAtlas utilizes science-based assessments to categorize and measure the conservation benefits of marine protected areas across the globe using clear, standardized terminology.
Photo: Cristina Mittermeier, Sea Legacy
Marine Protected Area (MPA)
The official IUCN definition is
“a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”
However, an online search for the term will result in over 20 differing definitions:
- Any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by Federal, State, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein (USA, Executive Order 13158).
- Regions in which human activity has been placed under some restrictions in the interest of conserving the natural environment, its surrounding waters and the occupant ecosystems and any cultural or historical resources that may require preservation or management (Wikipedia).
- Any area of the intertidal or subtidal 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 (IUCN).
- Any defined area within or adjacent to the marine environment, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by legislation or other effective means, including custom, with the effect that its marine and/or coastal biodiversity enjoys a higher level of protection than its surroundings (CBD).
- 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 (Protect Planet Ocean).
- An area of sea that forms part of the internal waters of Canada, the territorial sea of Canada or the exclusive economic zone of Canada and has been designated under this section for special protection for one or more of the following reasons (Canada’s Ocean Act (Section 35(1))):
- The conservation and protection of commercial and non-commercial fishery resources, including marine mammals, and their habitats.
- The conservation and protection of endangered or threatened marine species, and their habitats.
- The conservation and protection of unique habitats.
- The conservation and protection of marine areas of high biodiversity or biological productivity.
- The conservation and protection of any other marine resource or habitat as is necessary to fulfill the mandate of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
- An area of ocean in which human activity is restricted to conserve the marine environment and the wildlife that lives there (WDC).
- An area designated to protect ecosystems, processes, habitats, and species, which can contribute to the restoration and replenishment of resources for social, economic, and cultural enrichment (WWF).
- An area within the maritime area for which protective, conservation, restorative or precautionary measures, consistent with international law have been instituted for the purpose of protecting and conserving species, habitats, ecosystems or ecological processes of the marine environment (OSPAR).
- Areas of ocean that are free from destructive forms of resource exploitation (David Suzuki Foundation).
- Areas seaward of the high tide line that have been designated by law, administrative action, or voter initiative to protect or conserve marine life and habitat (CA Dept of Fish and Game, 2012).
- Named, discrete geographic marine or estuarine areas seaward of the mean high tide line or the mouth of a coastal river, including any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora and fauna, that has been designated by law or administrative action to protect or conserve marine life and habitat (CA Dept of Fish and Game).
- Discrete geographic marine or estuarine areas designed to protect or conserve marine life and habitat (CA Dept of Fish and Game).
- Areas at sea that meet long-term nature protection objectives (Agence des Aires Marines Protégées).
- A clearly defined zone in the sea which by some level of restriction protects living, non-living, cultural, and/or historic resources from harmful human impacts and environmental pollution (Vlaams Instituut Voor de Zee).
- Areas where natural or cultural resources are given greater protection than the surrounding waters (NOAA).
- Area of the sea which may be identified as being important for marine wildlife, habitats, cultural heritage or for fisheries purposes (seafish.org).
- A wide range of marine areas which have some level of restriction to protect living, non-living, cultural, and/or historic resources (Dept for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, UK).
- An area of the sea and seabed where human activities are restricted to allow marine life to recover and thrive. To be effective they need to be defined in law; and be properly enforced and managed to make sure that they are protected from activities that would damage them (seas-life.com).
- Versatile management tools that can be used to help conserve marine natural and cultural resources, and can be an integral part of an ecosystem approach to management. (Pacific Fishery Management Council).
Note: We are currently updating our dataset to reflect peer-reviewed classification systems which expand the assessment of human impacts to include uses such as mining, infrastructure and non-extractive use in order to more accurately report the types of protection globally. In the meantime, we are using our fishing protection scores to rank countries and MPAs by size and percent of protection. This number will be replaced when the database is robust enough to include the additional criteria. Until that time, the fully and highly protection used for ranking comes from the MPA Guide fishing protection criteria score, the RBCS fishing protection score, or confirmation of no-take status reported by the WDPA.
Fishing Protection Status
Measure of the protection an MPA is afforded from fishing and associated impacts - derived from the MPA Guide fishing protection criteria score, the RBCS fishing protection score, or confirmation of no-take status reported by the WDPA.
Fully / Highly Protected
Areas that prohibit or strictly restrict extractive activities, minimizing impact to the extent possible
Lightly / Minimally Protected
Areas that afford some protection but allow moderate to extensive extraction and associated impacts
The MPA Guide classifies MPA zones by the impact of allowed activities (level of protection) and their stage of establishment.
Level of Protection
- Fully protected
- No extractive or destructive activities are allowed, and all impacts are minimized.
- Highly protected
- Only light extractive activities are allowed, and other impacts are minimized to the extent possible.
- Lightly protected
- Some protection exists but moderate to significant extraction and impacts are allowed.
- Minimally protected
- Extensive extraction and other impacts are allowed while still providing some conservation benefit to the area.
- Stage of Establishment
- The intent to create an MPA is made public, for example through a submission to the Convention on Biological Diversity or other instrument, conference announcement, official press release, or other official documentation.
- An MPA is specifically codified or dedicated through legally recognized means or authoritative rule. The MPA now exists ‘on paper’ and in law or other formal process.
- An MPA transitions from existence on paper to being operational on the water, with concomitant management in place that aims to ensure compliance and enforcement. The MPA has a defined boundary, objectives and management strategy that reflect the primacy of conservation objectives (as per the IUCN definition of an MPA).
- Actively managed
- An MPA as demonstrable and ongoing enforceable rules, monitoring, evaluation, adaptive management, and conservation outcomes.
The RBCS classifies MPAs and their zones using activities allowed inside each zone grouped into five categories: commercial fisheries, recreational fisheries, aqua-culture, bottom exploitation and non-extractive uses.
For more information, see the RBCS Decision Tree.
- Fully protected
- No-take / No-go, regulated access, unregulated access.
- Highly protected
- No-take, unregulated access / highly or moderately regulated extraction.
- Moderately protected
- Moderately or weekly regulated extraction.
- Poorly protected
- Weakly or very weakly regulated extraction.
- Very weakly or unregulated extraction.
IUCN protected area management categories classify protected areas according to their management objectives. The categories are recognized by international bodies such as the United Nations and by many national governments as the global standard for defining and recording protected areas and as such are increasingly being incorporated into government legislation.
- Strict Nature Reserve - Category Ia
- These are strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphical features, where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values. Such protected areas can serve as indispensable reference areas for scientific research and monitoring. Category Ia protected areas are strictly protected areas, generally with only limited human visitation. They are often (but not always) relatively small, in contrast to Ib. There would usually not be human inhabitants in category Ia, but use by indigenous and local communities takes place in many Ib protected areas.
- Wilderness Area - Category Ib
- These protected areas are usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition. Category Ib protected areas will generally be larger and less strictly protected from human visitation than category Ia: although not usually subject to mass tourism they may be open to limited numbers of people prepared for self-reliant travel such as on foot or by boat, which is not always the case in Ia. Category Ib and II protected areas are often similar in size and in their aim to protect functioning ecosystems. But whereas II usually includes (or plans to include) use by visitors, including supporting infrastructure, in Ib visitor use is more limited and confined to those with the skills and equipment to survive unaided.
- National Park - Category II
- These protected areas are large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible, spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational, and visitor opportunities. Visitation in category II will probably be quite different from in wilderness areas, with more attendant infrastructure (trails, roads, lodges etc.) and therefore probably a greater number of visitors. Category II protected areas will often have core zones where numbers of visitors are strictly controlled, which may more closely resemble category Ia or Ib.
- Natural Monument or Feature - Category III
- These protected areas are set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, submarine cavern, geological feature such as a cave or even a living feature such as an ancient grove. They are generally quite small protected areas and often have high visitor value. The emphasis of category III management is not on protection of the whole ecosystem, but of particular natural features; otherwise category III is similar to category II and managed in much the same way but at a rather smaller scale in both size and complexity of management.
- Habitat/Species Management Area - Category IV
- These protected areas aim to protect particular species or habitats and management reflects this priority. Many Category IV protected areas will need regular, active interventions to address the requirements of particular species or to maintain habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category. Category II is aimed at maintaining ecological integrity at ecosystem scale, whereas category IV is aimed at protecting habitats and individual species. In practice, category IV protected areas will seldom be large enough to protect an entire ecosystem and the distinction between categories II and IV is therefore to some extent a matter of degree: category IV sites are likely to be quite small (individual marshes, fragments of woodland, although there are exceptions), while category II are likely to be much larger and at least fairly self-sustaining.
- Protected Landscape/ Seascape
- A protected area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant, ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values. Category V aims to protect overall landscapes and seascapes that have value to biodiversity, whereas category IV aims often quite specifically to protect identified target species and habitats. Category V protected areas will often be larger than category IV.
An area set aside by the government where no extractive activity is allowed. Extractive activity is any action that removes, or extracts, any resource. Extractive activities include fishing, hunting, logging, mining, and drilling. Shell collecting and archaeological digging are also extractive. (National Geographic).
Fishing using motorized vessels >12 m long x 6 m wide, with a capacity of >50 kg catch/voyage, requiring substantial sums for their construction, maintenance, and operation and mostly sold commercially, and that all fishing using trawling gears that are dragged or towed across the seafloor or through the water column, and fishing using purse seines and large longlines. (IUCN Definition).
Locally managed marine areas (LMMA)
An area of nearshore waters and coastal resources that is largely or wholly managed at a local level by the coastal communities, land-owning groups, partner organizations, and/or collaborative government representatives who reside or are based in the immediate area. (Govan et al., 2009).
Special places that are critical to the health of the ocean. Some of these are already formally protected, while others still need defined protection. (Mission Blue).
Man and the Biosphere Site
Program that promotes "a balanced relationship between humans and the biosphere." Under article 4, biosphere reserves must "encompass a mosaic of ecological systems", and thus combine terrestrial, coastal, or marine ecosystems. In structure they are similar to Multiple-use MPAs, with a core area ringed by different degrees of protection. (UNESCO).
Marine Conservation Area (California, USA)
Area where it is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource for commercial or recreational purposes, or a combination of commercial and recreational purposes, that the designating entity or managing agency determines would compromise protection of the species of interest, natural community, habitat, or geological features. The designating entity or managing agency may permit research, education, and recreational activities, and certain commercial and recreational harvest of marine resources(California Marine Protected Areas).
Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) (UK)
Protect nationally important habitats, species and geology (Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs; Joint Nature Conservation Committee; Natural England).Marine National Monument (USA)Similar to a National Park except that the President of the United States can declare an area of the United States to be a National Monument without the approval of Congress, and are managed by a combination of federal and local agencies
Marine Park (California, USA)
Area where it is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living or nonliving marine resource for commercial exploitation purposes. Any human use that would compromise protection of the species of interest, natural community or habitat, or geological, cultural, or recreational features, may be restricted by the designating entity or managing agency. All other uses are allowed, including scientific collection with a permit, research, monitoring, and public recreation, including recreational harvest, unless otherwise restricted. Public use, enjoyment, and education are encouraged, in a manner consistent with protecting resource values.
- Areas that are closed to all extractive uses, such as fishing and mining, as well as disposal activities (Greenpeace).
- In New Zealand, all marine reserves are, by definition, no-take areas.
- In California, USA, it is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living geological, or cultural marine resource, except under a permit or specific authorization from the managing agency for research, restoration, or monitoring purposes. While, to the extent feasible, the area shall be open to the public for managed enjoyment and study, the area shall be maintained to the extent practicable in an undisturbed and unpolluted state. Access and use for activities including, but not limited to, walking, swimming, boating, and diving may be restricted to protect marine resources. Research, restoration, and monitoring may be permitted by the managing agency. Educational activities and other forms of non-consumptive human use may be permitted by the designating entity or managing agency in a manner consistent with the protection of all marine resources.
- In Oregon, USA marine reserves are defined as an area within Oregon’s Territorial Sea or adjacent rocky intertidal area that is protected from all extractive activities, including the removal or disturbance of living and non-living marine resources, except as necessary for monitoring or research to evaluate reserve condition, effectiveness, or impact of stressors.
- The Pacific Fishery Management Council in the Western US defines it as an area where some or all fishing is prohibited for a lengthy period of time.
- In the Chagos, administered by the UK, in the fully protected marine reserve, all extractive activities, such as industrial fishing and deep sea mining, are prohibited.
- In the UK, the purpose of Marine Nature Reserves is to conserve marine flora and fauna and geological features of special interest, while providing opportunities for study of marine systems. A number of voluntary marine nature reserves (vMNRs) have been established by agreement between non-governmental organizations, stakeholders and user groups. These have no statutory basis.
- In Mozambique, the terms marine protected area and marine reserve are used interchangeably, and some marine reserves are privately held and managed.
- In Spain, marine reserves encompass both marine protected areas (established for environmental reasons) and marine fishing reserves (established to benefit fishing efforts).
- In South Africa, marine sanctuaries are defined as areas providing total protection; marine reserves as areas where most species are protected but selected species can be taken; and fishery reserves as areas where only one or a few species of commercial value are protected. Marine Sanctuaries may occur within larger marine reserves. (Reeves Report).
- Some organizations, such as WWF and the Pew Charitable Trusts distinguish between “marine reserves” and “fully protected marine reserves”.
Marine Sanctuaries (US)
In the US, sanctuaries are managed for multiple uses provided the uses are deemed compatible with resource protection by the Secretary of Commerce. The National Marine Sanctuary Act does not prohibit any type of use, but leaves it up to the Secretary to determine through a public process which activities will be allowed and what regulations will apply to various uses. Under this process a secretary may exempt extractive uses from regulation, such as bottom trawl fishing.
- Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) (EU) - Protect marine habitats or species of European importance
- Special Protection Areas (SPA) (EU) - Protects populations of specific species of birds of European importance - SPAs will allow economic growth and human-related activities (i.e., they are not no-take zones!), but only if those will not represent any threat to the occurring bird populations. The way this is achieved is through a management plan. All SPAs need to have management plans approved through an open and participated process. Management plans will define the uses that can, or cannot, happen within the reserves.
Internationally protected wetlands of importance for birds. (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance).
A shark sanctuary is not a legally defined term, however it is generally an area that forbids commercial fishing operations from catching some or all shark species. The first official shark sanctuary was created by Palau in 2009, though Israel enacted shark protections in their EEZ in 1980. It was followed by Maldives, Honduras, The Bahamas, and Tokelau. (Wikipedia).
World Heritage Site
An area exhibiting extensive natural or cultural history. Maritime areas are poorly represented, however, with only 46 out of over 800 sites (UNESCO)
The Marine Protection Atlas maintains and visualizes the most comprehensive database of marine protected area quality assessments.
Why Fully and Highly Protected Areas?
Studies show that fully and highly protected areas provide the greatest conservation benefits.
MPA Quality Assessments
Science-based MPA quality assessments clearly measure and articulate the protection level and expected conservation benefits of MPAs