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When is a Marine Protected Area really a Marine Protected Area?


Marine Protected Areas. Marine Reserves. Marine National Monuments. Marine Sanctuaries. Locally Managed Marine Areas. These terms are often thrown around in policy briefings, official documents and by the media. But what really constitutes a protected area in our oceans? How should we classify and define these vague terms? As countries strive to protect 10% of their coastal and marine areas, a global goal established in the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Target 11, confusion arises regarding what roles these different forms of marine protection play in achieving effective conservation.

The definition of a marine protected area (MPA) is not uniform throughout the world, however when MPAs are created, they tend to share the same objectives – to protect biodiversity, cultural heritage and create sustainable livelihoods. Nevertheless, the complex assortment of MPA types with differing protection levels, permanence and purposes makes it difficult to fully understand the protection occurring in our oceans.

Generally speaking, marine protected areas are categorized by the level of extractive activity permitted. It is common to see no-take or multiple-use designations, or to have a zoned mixture of both within one protected area. Recently, the Pitcairn Islands received a no-take MPA (also known as a marine reserve) designation. Marine reserves prohibit the extraction or destruction of natural and cultural features within their boundaries. Alternatively, multiple-use MPAs allow additional activities to take place (potentially including some level of fishing, diving, boating and/or other recreational and commercial uses). Some protected areas zone certain sections as no-take, while allowing for multiple-use in other areas (such as the Great Barrier Reef).

MPA final photo 1

Map of large protected areas with their respective levels of protection (click to enlarge)

The permanence of a marine protected area can also vary. Some are established under legislative action or under a different regulatory mechanism to exist permanently into the future. Others are intended to last only a few months or years. Some MPAs may be seasonal and are established to protect a particular species’ spawning season or primary food source, while others are designed to protect habitats or ecosystems. Ultimately, the level of effective regulatory enforcement within the MPA will determine whether that area truly fulfills its intended level of protection and permanence.

These factors make it difficult to quantitatively determine how much of the world’s oceans are protected. The Protected Planet website calculates that 3.4% of our seas are protected. At, we consider permanence and place-based management as essential features of MPAs.  Both are needed for effective conservation. Therefore, only marine protected areas that have permanent boundaries and are fully implemented are counted in our protected area coverage number. For example, we do not recognize MPAs that are temporary fishing closures (i.e., the protected area does not meet our expectation of permanence) or are broad regional management zones without clear place-based affinity and management (e.g., the  long-line fishing gear closure along the entire US East Coast that overlaps fishing for species with other gear types). We also do not recognize areas that have been “designated” but do not yet regulate activities and still await management plans to be put into place.


Existing protected areas broken down; in comparison to the percentage of unprotected ocean (click to enlarge)

After an extensive analysis of the world’s marine protected areas, has determined that approximately 2.12% of the world’s oceans are currently protected in some form of a MPA, and less than 1% is protected in no-take marine reserves. Because does not recognize fishing regulations as MPAs, i.e. places that lack site-base management plans or permanent protection, our protection values differ from Protected Planet’s.

Whether’s 2.12% or Protected Planet’s 3.4% value is used, the underlying message is the same: we have a long way to go as a global community to protect the 20-30% of our oceans that marine scientists agree is necessary for conserving vulnerable places and species in the sea.

MPA blog photo

Credit: Brian Skerry

At Marine Conservation Institute we are trying to accelerate the creation of strong marine protected areas in the ocean. Our Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) initiative is designed to catalyze strong protection for at least 20% of the ecosystems in each marine biogeographic region of the world’s oceans. By establishing consistent criteria for determining the most important locations and protection levels needed to safeguard species and their habitats, GLORES will provide standards to evaluate the effectiveness of marine protected areas.

When you visit your favorite ocean destination in the near future, we hope that it will be a GLORES certified site- a simple designation that will tell you about the quality of protection your special spot receives!


Cover Photo: McFall/NOAA – Bigeye Fish in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument