What is a marine protected area (MPA)?

Marine protected areas – like protected areas on land – are places where human activities are more strictly regulated than in other areas, generally in the interest of nature conservation.

Threats to marine ecosystems include habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, overfishing and climate change. Around 400 marine species are (critically) endangered, 20 % of coral reefs have been lost, 50 % of mangrove cover and 30 % of seagrass habitats have disappeared, and nearly 70% of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished or depleted. This depletion in marine biodiversity in turn contributes to climate change, as seagrass meadows and mangrove forests are significant carbon sinks, comparable to rainforests.

MPAs are widely recognised as an effective measure for protecting endangered species and ensuring marine biodiversity.

Defining a protected area

Among the many formal definitions of protected areas, the most broadly used is the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) definition:

‘A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines a protected area (in Article 2) thus:

‘A geographically defined area, which is designated or regulated and managed to achieve specific conservation objectives.’

Both the IUCN and CBD definitions require that a site must be set aside principally for conservation if it is to be recognised as a protected area, although it may have additional objectives such as improving livelihoods or promoting education or research.

IUCN additionally defines a marine protected area thus:

“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.”

Types of marine protected area

There are many kinds of marine protected areas, and they can have a wide range of conservation objectives. In addition, some MPAs are designated for protection for heritage and cultural (rather than environmental) reasons.

 Protection measures can range from multi-use (allowing some types of fishing or certain recreational activities) to ‘no-take’ (no extractive activities such as fishing, mining, drilling are allowed) or even ‘no use’ areas. Some MPAs restrict certain areas to one specific use (e.g., local fishing), according to the needs of a particular area.

No-use zone

No activities are permitted

 No-take zone

Non-extractive activities are permitted, such as diving and mooring. ‘Marine reserves’ usually fall into this category.

Buffer zone

Transitional areas between no-take zones and multiple-use zones. Moderate activities, such as hook-and-line fishing, limited aquaculture and limited tourism, are permitted.

Multi-use zone

All tourism, fishing and aquaculture activities are permitted, including diving, large-scale commercial fishing and aquaculture. Activities may be restricted seasonally.