Skip to content

Marine Conservation Institute has been on a decade long quest to answer two simple questions: ‘How much of the ocean is protected by marine protected areas? And how effective is that protection?’ Dive into our latest version of the Marine Protection Atlas to browse for answers!


Why the World Needs an Independent Marine Protected Area Atlas

Nearly a decade ago, when scientists from Marine Conservation Institute sat down to examine the data on marine protected areas (MPAs) collected by the World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA), the official international list, they noticed something fishy.

Research clearly demonstrates that marine protected areas (MPAs) are one of the simplest, most effective tools to sustain marine biodiversity and climate resilience. To conserve and restore that biodiversity, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official international organization that tracks worldwide progress on conservation and leading scientists, agree that we must achieve 30% protection of our ocean by 2030. In line with this goal, nations around the world have been reporting the number of MPAs they had created, to the WDPA database.

Our scientists noticed that the reality of many of these self-reported MPAs looked a lot different on the water than it did on paper. Some were not true MPAs at all, but instead were fishery management areas where conservation was not a primary objective; some had very weak rules on fishing and extraction or none whatsoever; and many of these protected areas had been designated but never implemented.  The team at Marine Conservation Institute had uncovered, in essence, whole sheaves of “paper parks” and areas managed for fisheries that were doing little to make oceans and marine life healthier.  

Why does this matter? A large number of MPAs reported to the World Database of Protected Areas include huge areas that are not real MPAs and cannot deliver conservation benefits. These reported numbers could skew studies assessing the conservation value of MPAs, and could mislead world leaders in understanding how much progress has been made.

As part of the effort to raise standards and incentivize fully and highly protected MPAs, Marine Conservation Institute awards Blue Park status to those MPAs around the globe that are leaders in conservation, such as the Northern Channel Island MPAs, in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, pictured above.

Cue the birth of the MPAtlas project. Our organization decided that if we were to make any sense of whether the international community was reaching shared MPA goals, we would need reliable data and standardized criteria for judging the conservation effectiveness of MPAs. Marine Conservation Institute began independently vetting and compiling lists of MPAs around the world, each with accompanying data that had been verified.

But the real challenge became not just gathering clean and reliable data, but how to judge whether the rules and characteristics of any particular MPA could deliver conservation benefits. Marine Conservation Institute staff met with marine scientists from around the world many times and spent years addressing this question—examining data and rules for MPA management, looking at how different MPAs responded to those rules and restrictions, and developing systems for predicting the likely effectiveness of an MPA based on these characteristics. These efforts yielded two different systems (the MPA Guide and Blue Parks Criteria) for assessing the quality of an MPA. A third system for assessing quality was developed independently through an effort led by Oceano Azul.

Each assessment process provides a somewhat different way of judging the protection afford by and effectiveness of an MPA; together they are a powerful combination.

Today, the clean data and clear assessment criteria of the MPAtlas allow us to examine and quantify the disparity we first uncovered years ago. Today, using only the World Database of Protected Areas, a viewer might conclude that 6.4% of the ocean is protected; while the MPAtlas reveals that only 2.6% is effectively protected . . . a huge difference when it comes to important international conversations and ambitions for the future.

Explore the Marine Protection Atlas!

What’s New in MPAtlas 2.0

Our newest version of the MPAtlas incorporates and categorizes MPAs by the three assessment systems described above, creating a more nuanced look at global and regional progress toward MPA goals. It allows users to see not only which MPAs meet the definition and are implemented on the water, but also how well protected they are and effective they will be.

The latest version of the Marine Protected Atlas gives a real-time glimpse into the state of ocean conservation as we work to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.

A new web-based data entry platform allows Marine Conservation Institute scientists and partner organizations from around the world to complete and share MPA quality assessments, which are then reflected on the MPAtlas interactive maps and in our statistics. This collaborative new design makes MPAtlas methods and data widely accessible and transparent. It allows marine experts other than Marine Conservation Institute staff to vet MPAs and assign quality ratings, accelerating progress on assessing the thousands of MPAs. Changes to the underlying data update in real time, so users have access to the latest numbers every time they search.

The new website will allow users to fine-tune their explorations by country, by region, by ocean basin, and by level of protection—giving visitors access to local maps of their nearest coast or glimpses into their favorite dive site on the other side of the globe. Our hope is that average citizens, scientists, policy makers, and international organizations will all utilize MPAtlas to develop a clear understanding of MPA coverage and progress toward conservation goals, expand the number of effective MPAs and improve existing ones. We are immensely proud of the new MPAtlas and thankful for the generous support from funders like the Waitt Foundation, Winslow Foundation and Oceans5 over the years and our marine science colleagues from around the world that have made this all possible.

Excited to explore? Check out the new MPAtlas here!