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Several interesting scientific papers have recently documented the benefits of marine protected areas and the challenges associated with ensuring they do what we want them to do.  Two of these reports stood out because they confirm what Marine Conservation Institute has been emphasizing for years; that “watering down” marine protected areas is ineffective for conservation.  Most existing marine protected areas offer weak protection and therefore have little demonstrable benefit for marine life.  In addition, many areas that are protected are the “leftovers” after commercial fishing, mining and other industries pick the places they want.  Often designation processes involve extensive concessions to fishing interests, and even allow for kinds of fishing that are extremely damaging to marine life and habitats such as bottom trawling.  For example, trawling is widespread in some of the US National Marine Sanctuaries (e.g., Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Olympic Coast NMS).  Not only does this question the meaning and value of “sanctuary,” it limits successful conservation outcomes.

Marine conservation groups need to rally together to ensure that new and existing marine protected areas are actually protecting our critical ocean places!

These two papers implicitly support our new initiative, the Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES).  GLORES is all about developing scientifically rigorous standards for protection so we establish marine protected areas that actually maintain biological diversity, improve the resilience of our oceans and support robust human economies.  In fact, while corresponding with one of these scientists, Dr. Devillers, about his findings, he told us “GLORES is the most exciting marine conservation initiative I’ve seen in a while!  I think we urgently need something that can be an alternative to a simple rating of conservation success based on the number of square kilometers their MPAs cover.”

Trawler in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, photo: Elliott Norse.

Trawler in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, photo: Elliott Norse.

The first recent paper was by University of Tasmania marine biologist Graham Edgar and colleagues and was published in the journal Nature.  These scientists found that the most successful protected areas have: strong legal protection, strong enforcement, been established for at least a decade, large size and isolation (for example, a remote island or a reef patch surrounded by large sandy areas).  They also found that most marine protected areas around the world right now are weakly protected.

The second paper was by Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Rodolphe Devillers and colleagues in the journal Aquatic Conservation.  Their core message is that putting marine protected areas mainly in places nobody cares about is not a smart strategy.  Unfortunately, governments tend to protect areas that are already out of harm’s way.

These papers provide crucial messages for governments, conservation funders and advocates:

1) Marine protected areas work, but they need to truly protect our oceans, and we must avoid watered-down half-measures if we want to recover fishes and other marine life.

2) Weakly protecting places does little for fish (or fishermen).

3) We need to protect areas in places that offer benefits to marine life, not in places designed to avoid conflicts with extractive industries.

We all know that, at present, developing strongly protected marine areas is not an easy task and that conservation groups, individuals, donors and governments need to work together to make it happen.  We also need to be aware that negotiating for protected areas that don’t provide strong protections minimizes the likelihood of success.  Oceans face challenges from extractive industries, such as fisheries, oil extraction and mining, as well as future impacts from climate change.  We all need to stand strong to create a resilient and lasting network of protected areas.

You can read more about the Global Ocean Refuge System on the GLORES website.  Please join us on this extremely important initiative.



Edgar, G. J., R. D. Stuart-Smith, T. J.Willis, S. Kininmonth, S. C. Baker, S. Banks, N. S. Barrett, M. A. Becerro, A. T. F. Bernard, J. Berkhout, C. D. Buxton, S. J. Campbell, A. T. Cooper, M. Davey, S. C. Edgar, G. Försterra, D. E. Galván, A. J. Irigoyen, D. J. Kushner, R. Moura, P. E. Parnell, N. T. Shears, G. Soler, E. M. A. Strain & R. J. Thomson. (2014). Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features. Nature doi:10.1038/nature13022.

Devillers, R., R.L. Pressey, A. Grech, J.N. Kittinger, G.J. Edgar, T. Ward, & R. Watson. (2014). Reinventing residual reserves in the sea: are we favouring ease of establishment over need for protection? Aquatic Conservation doi:10.1002/aqc.2445.

1 Comment

  1. Valeria Falabella on April 21, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Thank you for your article. We met at Buenos Aires, Argentina, several month ago. I thanks your sentence: “I think we urgently need something that can be an alternative to a simple rating of conservation success based on the number of square kilometers their MPAs cover.” I think that the new tendency of evaluating our marine conservation success, with measures of ocean coverage percentage, represents a future threat to the ocean health… I hope that noone feel calm if in the future… we finally reach the 10% of our ocean protected…

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