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The Evolution of the Marine Protection Atlas and a New Era of Science-Based Assessments

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An accurate accounting of how much of the ocean is protected—and protected well—is essential for steering conversations and setting global targets for marine conservation if we are to achieve 30% protection of the ocean by 2030. Since 2012, the Marine Protection Atlas (MPAtlas), an initiative of Marine Conservation Institute, has provided a nuanced perspective on global marine protection. MPAtlas has endeavored to verify, through independent research and partnerships with other non-governmental organizations, the self-reported no-take data provided by countries to the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Our team has identified, confirmed, and provided more detailed information on the subset of self-reported no-take MPAs that are implemented ‘on-the-water’. Our efforts have resulted in global marine protection numbers that tell a clearer story about how many marine protected areas are providing true biodiversity conservation.

Our work to clarify MPA reporting over the past nine years became the impetus for an effort within the marine conservation community to create a scientifically supported framework to categorize, track and evaluate MPAs. The Science publication of The MPA Guide: A Framework to Achieve Global Goals for the Ocean is the culmination of this multi-year, multi-national collaborative work.

The MPA Guide is a groundbreaking science-driven, policy-relevant framework to categorize marine protected areas and link their outcomes for nature and people. The MPA Guide organizes MPAs along two axes: Stage of Establishment and Level of Protection. The Stage of Establishment specifies an MPA’s status—in other words, whether it exists only on paper or is in operation and actively protecting biodiversity—while the Level of Protection clarifies the degree to which biodiversity and ecosystems within an MPA are protected from extractive or destructive activities. The MPA Guide provides the science, evidence and framework to clarify which MPAs will be able to deliver effective protection. Only when an MPA is enforced on the water can it generate conservation benefits, and the strength of conservation outcomes correlates with the extent to which extractive or destructive activities are reduced.

Grorud-Colvert et al. 2021. The MPA Guide: A framework to achieve global goals for the ocean, Science doi:10.1126/science.abf0861

As a founding partner of and key collaborator in The MPA Guide initiative, we celebrate its launch; but we’re also looking to the work ahead. Creating The MPA Guide framework was only the beginning – we must now apply the framework and consider what the resulting characterizations reveal about global marine protection. Since the end of 2020, we have been transitioning the focus of the MPAtlas database toward detailed reporting of MPA level of protection and stage of establishment. Our team has revamped our database to house MPA Guide assessments, as well as the component and raw data that are used to make the assessments. MPAtlas now includes a new interactive web map interface that allows users to explore MPAs assessed with The MPA Guide framework using a series of filters and views. Each assessed MPA has a score card that describes its stage of establishment and level of protection, as well as more details about the components that contributed to these assessments. You can explore the new features for MPA case studies discussed in The MPA Guide publication here.

Working with colleagues and partners to apply The MPA Guide to more MPAs around the world, we anticipate releasing more MPA Guide assessments over the course of the fall and winter, supporting each data release with documentation and transparency about how The MPA Guide framework was applied. We look forward to sharing our new protected area assessments and numbers as we pioneer the application of this powerful MPA classification tool and work to better understand the likely conservation outcomes of our current marine protections.

If you are interested in partnering with our MPAtlas team and contributing MPA information to our database, please reach out to