« How To Have A Sustainable Festive Season | Main | QUIZ: Where Should You Teach Abroad in 2017? »

Marine Protected Areas Explained

One fifth of known ocean species are categorized as Threatened by the IUCN, with the number increasing 52 times per year! But did you know only 1.2% of our oceans are protected from threats that face them today? Never before have Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) been more valuable for ocean species conservation, our Online Media Intern investigates how they work and what their future holds.

The main threats facing marine vertebrate species are overfishing, bycatch, plastic pollution, oil pollution and ocean acidification caused by climate change. With so many threats to manage, the easiest way to keep ocean habitats and the species living off them surviving is to protect them. Can we protect the marine environment the same way the terrestrial environment is protected?

flickr | Plato F

There are obvious difficulties with this, the ocean is much vaster than terrestrial environments put together. On top of this many threats like oil and nutrient pollution can spread very quickly in the oceans, making them impossible to maintain.


MPAs are extremely important for maintaining fish stocks. In 2010, 2.9 billion people rely on fisheries for their main source of protein. The threat to marine species by overfishing is devastating, as too many adult and breeding fish are taken without allowing the remaining to breed enough fish to replace the missing adults. The effects of this are most commonly known through the loss of 96% of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna populations due to overfishing of the popular sandwich filler.


This is where MPAs are very useful, much like crop rotation in agriculture; areas of ocean can become protected for a certain amount of time to allow fish stocks to replenish. Other areas are than fished and become protected once the previously protected area reopens.


Edgar attempted to review MPAs global conservation outcomes in a paper published in Nature, 2014. Protected areas were found to have 5 times more fish biomass and 14 times more shark biomass than fished areas. However, out of the 87 MPAs reviewed, 59% were found to not be ecologically distinguishable from fished sites. The MPAs that were least successful were identified to not have key features like No Take Zones (no fishing allowed), heavy enforcement, larger size and higher age.


Another Added Bonus of MPAs around coastal areas, like the Mediterrean, is the economic gains of Eco-tourism, as the video by WWF below explains.



When it comes to MPAs, is size everything? The authors concluded that socio-economic impacts of MPAs were unclear, illustrating that you cannot just weigh up the benefits of MPAs on their size alone. This conclusion is reflected in terrestrial conservation, as large habitat protection is beneficial, most species (e.g the jaguar) require widely distributed habitats with corridors between them to ensure successful breeding with mates who are not closely genetically related to them. For marine environments, this is even more important as most do not have clear geological barriers distributing species like on land.


Some scientists argue the implementation of Very Large Marine Protected Areas (VLMPAs). The most famous example of a VLMPA is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, reaching 1.5 million km squared. It was designated by President Obama in August this year.

flickr | NOAA's National Ocean Service | Coral and Ulua found in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Most VMPAs would be situated outside coastal areas as there is often conflict between who owns reserves nearer the coast. Having a large protected area away from conflict allows multiple parties to control it.  The designation of the MPA in the Ross Sea is an amazing example of this. After years of negotiations at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the world’s largest MPA was designated by 24 countries and the European Union. The agreement made history as never before has so many countries reached a consensus to protect the high seas from commercial fishing.


So far MPAs have followed terrestrial conservation management schemes through designation of protected areas and increasing their size. The 2-Dimensional outlook is efficient in terrestrial environment but marine species live in an ever-changing environment, leading to the concept of Dynamic Ocean Management (DOM).  

Wikipedia | Marine Ecosystems

A management technique that incorporates the local community and fishermen, whos support ensures the success of any MPA. Dynamic management approaches have proven successful in southern Bluefin tuna and loggerhead sea turtles to reduce bycatch but as of yet hasn’t been implemented in fishing.


DOM involves long-term data sets of species distribution and ocean temperature, salinity and mixed layer depth to predict where different species will be distributed throughout the year. The models are achieved by regularly monitoring fish populations through their daily cycles of movement and feed backing data to fishermen (e.g. through a mobile app) to improve ecological, economic and social sustainability of fishing by ensuring even non-protected areas will not undergo overfishing.


The need for more reviews of current MPA management seems to be critical as many governments think just having many and large MPAs guarantees success, whereas constant reviewing will allow the system to adapt and become more sustainable and successful for communities and conservation.


See Our Marine Conservation Projects to be involved in Scientific Research and Eco-Tourism in MPAs.


By Meike Simms - Online Media Intern 

Frontier runs conservationdevelopmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

Get more from us on social media with FacebookTwitter , Instagram and Pinterest.