It’s not all about size, it’s how you use it- Marine Protected Areas

A Marine Protected Area (MPA) is a protected region of the ocean designated for specific management aimed to prevent misuse of natural resources and damages to the ecosystem. On August 2016, Barack Obama made his final conservation effort to create the world’s largest MPA by expanding Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (BBC) With the recent expansion, we are approaching 2% to protecting the entire ocean. However, the consensus among marine scientists is to protect 20-30%, therefore a significant amount of critical areas globally are left under-covered. (Convention of Biological Diversity)

Although the recent expansion of the reserve has merit to sustain the environment and biodiversity, the extent to which MPAs fulfil their full ecological potential is dependent on several key planning and management features than just its size. In a study conducted by Edgar et al. suggest that to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of MPAs, several factors would have to be considered as important as size. These include, degree of fishing permitted in the MPA, level of enforcement, MPA age, and presence of continuous habitat allowing unconstrained movement of fish across MPA boundaries. 


Figure 1. Mean response ratios with 95% confidence intervals for four community metrics and low, medium and high levels of five MPA features.

The same study concluded that the ecological performances of existing “larger” MPAs are usually poorer than of the smaller MPAs. In fact, increasing the size of MPAs can increase the likelihood of major setbacks in management. Regulation is absolutely critical and is often an issue due to the vast size of the ocean and the nature of the high seas. A full enforcement chain needs to be in place from initial declaration up to becoming a successfully managed protected area. However, this requires a huge amount of effort, and I believe the most unsuccessful MPAs are missing an important component, the lack of political will.

In addition to the lack of political will, there is also a significant lack of involvement from local communities. I would like to see more effort invested into Marine Protected Areas, top-down managed with bottom up involvement, including communication and community outreach programs. I believe increasing compliance between offenders and enforcement plays a vital role to deter illegal activity. Although the expansion of the Marine Protected Area can be regarded as a significant conservation effort, it must be understood that it is not the only solution to maintaining the health of the ocean and requires more involvement and collaboration from the government and local communities.

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