Is the race for vast remote MPAs taking us down the wrong track?

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Targets for marine conservation have been important since 1998, when 1605 scientists from around the world signed a call for governments to protect 20% of the world’s seas from all threats by 2020. Since then, there have been several formal targets for MPA coverage, most significantly the Convention on Biological Diversity’s ‘Aichi target’ that at least 10% of the world’s seas should be effectively conserved through systems of MPAs by 2020. The achievement of such targets has increasingly been progressed through the designation of giant MPAs, often surrounding islands in remote oceans, i.e. vast remote MPAs. The first VRMPA was the 340,000 km2 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, designated in 2000, as part of Bill Clinton’s departing environmental legacy, and larger than all of America’s national parks combined. This VRMPA was later included in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, this 2006 designation by George Bush building on the previous one. Initially open to bottom trawling, all fishing throughout the PMNM was banned in 2011, as whilst ‘bigger is better’, it is also considered that ‘no-take is best’. The race was on.

There have since been many more designations in the race to declare the largest MPA in the world and add to the list of ‘flagship’ VRMPAs. This race has been enthusiastically supported by conservation campaign groups and donors, and many governments have joined in, all keen to gain the green credentials associated with VRMPAs. This has led to ~62% of global MPA coverage being down to just 24 such designations (all >100,000 km2) amongst a total of over 6,000 MPAs, which all together cover only 3.27% of the global marine area  (Boonzaier and Pauly 2016), so without remote VLMPAs we would be even further from achieving the 10% target. A recent paper on the effectiveness of MPAs (Edgar et al. 2014) provides scientific evidence to support this race, as it found that there are five key features of MPAs that promote the effective achievement of conservation outcomes – being large, well enforced, no-take, old and isolated from fished areas. However, a related paper (Devillers et al. 2015) argues that MPAs are increasingly biased towards such isolated areas that are residual to commercial use and therefore have not yet been heavily exploited. The remoteness of such isolated residual areas means that they can often be closed with relatively few political costs, as they tend to be in overseas territories where few, if any, mainland voters live, and with relatively minor economic costs, as commercial exploiters tend to be incoming fishing vessels from other countries:


From the perspective of national governments, it is clear that VRMPAs are win-win, in that they gain green credentials and contribute to each country’s Aichi target. Why go through the politically and economically expensive process of designating relatively small MPAs around the mainland when you can designate vast MPAs in overseas territories with minimal costs and many gains? From the perspective of conservation campaigners and donors, it is clear that VRMPAs deliver high profile benefits in that they safeguard  large areas of relatively pristine seas from increasingly pervasive fishing industry pressures. The persuasiveness of such rationales is evident in the increasing number of VRMPAs and proportion of global MPA coverage that they represent.

There are, however, several major problems with this trend, as the Aichi target is about much more than total coverage:

At least 17% of terrestrial and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape[ by 2020] – 10th Conference of the Parties  (COP10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Aichi, Japan, 2010.

The target states that MPAs must be effective in enforcing restrictions on impacting activities, particularly fishing, but vastness and remoteness pose major enforcement challenges. Whilst emerging satellite surveillance technology can help detect illegal fishing vessels, there are still challenges in detaining such vessels through interception by a fisheries patrol vessel, which are very expensive to operate in such vast distant areas, or remotely gaining enough evidence to secure a guilty verdict in court. Detection alone is not enough, vessels must be detained, sufficient evidence gathered, successful  prosecutions gained and penalties applied that are sufficient to deter other fishers (Jones 2014: 154-155 ). There are concerns that the pace at which VRMPAs are being designated exceeds the pace at which enforcement capacity  is being developed, and that some VRMPAs are ‘paper parks’ that provide only an illusion of marine conservation.

The Aichi target also specifies that MPA systems must be representative, in that they should protect typical examples of species and habitats in each of the world’s marine bioregions, and well connected, in that the MPAs should be close enough together to enable ecological processes  to connect between them. A focus on relatively few VRMPAs in remote and residual areas will not achieve such representative and well connected networks, as MPA coverage will remain patchy and the gaps too large, i.e. MPAs will be separated  by large expanses of unprotected ocean. Whilst inshore ‘metropolitan’ seas with a higher number of users represent a challenge, such seas need to be included in MPA networks if they are to be representative and well connected. It could also be argued that whilst such MPAs may have to be smaller and provide for fishing activities on which people depend for their livelihoods, perhaps including small no-take zones, it is important to also focus conservation efforts on areas that are under pressure and on which people rely. Marine conservation should be as much about promoting sustainable use in metropolitan seas as it is about promoting no use in remote, residual seas. This is particularly important given that a recent analysis shows that  58% of the world’s coral reefs are within 30 minutes  travelling time of the nearest human settlement (Maire et al 2016), i.e. more than half the world’s corals could be considered as ‘metropolitan’ and could be neglected if the focus is on vast, remote, no-take MPAs.

Last but certainly not least, the Aichi target states that MPA networks should be equitably managed, in that the costs and benefits of MPAs should be fairly distributed. Whilst VRMPAs tend to be in areas where only a relatively small number of people live, such people do tend to have a high dependence on marine resources, including for commercial and traditional customary use, so it could be unfair to close most or all of the exclusive economic zone to all extractive activities. Such people may be politically remote but their rights must not be marginalised by VRMPAs.

So, the race to designate MPAs that are vast and remote could be slowing progress towards achieving the Aichi target for effective, representative, well-connected and equitable networks of MPAs, or even taking us down the wrong track. It is clear that in the same way that MPAs need to conserve a diversity of species, MPA networks need to include a diversity of different types of MPA, including VRMPAs, but also including smaller MPAs in metropolitan seas that promote sustainable use. It is important that the race towards VRMPAs does not divert attention, resources and political will away from the other types of MPA that are necessary for fulfilling marine conservation targets.

Dr Peter Jones is a Reader in Environmental Governance at University College London and is the author of the 2014 book Governing marine protected areas: resilience through diversity, the paperback version of which was published in February 2016 ($40 from Routledge with discount code DC361)

A shorter version of this blog was originally published on 13 June 2016 as the article Taking us down the wrong path, as part of a feature on Giant Marine Protected Areas  by Lisa Boonzaier in the Save Our Seas magazine, alongside the article Helping to reverse a downward trend by Matt Rand, Director of the Global Ocean Legacy, Pew Charitable Trust.

References and further Reading

  • Boonzaier L and Pauly D (2016) Marine protection targets: an updated assessment of global progress. Oryx 50, 27-35
  • De Santo EM (2013) Missing marine protected area (MPA) targets: How the push for quantity over quality undermines sustainability and social justice. Journal of Environmental Management 124, 137-146
  • Devillers R et al. (2015) Reinventing residual reserves in the sea: are we favouring ease of establishment over need for protection? Aquatic Conservation 25, 480–504
  • Edgar GJ et al. (2014) Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features. Nature 506, 216-220
  • Jones PJS (2014) Governing marine protected areas: resilience through diversity. Earthscan/Routledge
  • Maire E et al. (2016) How accessible are coral reefs to people? A global assessment based on travel time. Ecology Letters 19, 351-360
  • Wilhelm TA et al. (2014) Large marine protected areas – advantages and challenges of going big. Aquatic Conservation 24(S2), 24-30


The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (NWHICRER) was indeed designated in 2000, but under President Clinton as he was leaving office.  It continues to exist but was subsequently overlaid with the creation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Sanctuary under George Bush in 2006.  The other pacific monuments were designated by Bush as he was leaving office, in 2009.  It is Papahānaumokuākea that is now under consideration for expansion. 

Not sure where Pew sourced the data for this map but it is confusing and does not show what the title states ('The World's Largest Highly Protected Marine Reserves').  A number of the MPAs shown are multiple-use areas comprised of various zones, only some of which are highly-protected.  For example, the map shows the entire Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, not the highly protected zones within it.  Furthermore the total extent of highly protected zones in the GBR comprise 115, 580 km2 not the 114,000 km2 as indicated on the map.

Similarly for the Phoenix Islands; the map shows the entire extent of the MPA and states the area is 408,000 km2.  The Phoenix Islands Management Plan states (p.23) "The current or baseline zonation of PIPA with respect to full “no-take” areas amounts to 3.87% of the total PIPA marine area (Figure 4). During the next phases of implementing the PIPA Management Plan, Kiribati intends to zone an additional 25% of the MPA as a no-take zone ..." (see also Fig 4 on pp. 42-43).

Readers may be interested in a paper which addresses many of the issues in this blog; the paper ‘Dangerous Targets’ revisited: Old dangers in new contexts plague marine protected areas' is about to be published in a Special Issue of Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems and will be launched at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in Sept 2016.

Hawaii hosted the first of the vast remote MPAs when the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve was designated in 2000, leaping back into first place when it was extended as the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument in 2006 and made entirely no-take in 2011. Since than, it has been overtaken by several vaster remote MPAs, but it could soon be back in the lead, with the soon to be departing Barack Obama eyeing it up as part of his (considerable) legacy - a four fold expansion to a boggling 1,508,870 km2 [see article on this proposal]. To paraphrase my favorite movie quote of all time, "you're gonna need a bigger patrol boat".... and quite a few more.

In some countries and at some political junctures there will be a worrying over-reliance to meet targets of % cover by picking the low-hanging fruit of large scale remote offshore MPAs over the 'more difficult' political choices nearer to home. It's also the case that stricter conservation measures are regularly (and sometimes systematically) placed in areas of lesser human use. [It would be great to see a study analysing the level of protection of sites relative to distance to population centre].

NGOs, 'coastal communities', academics and MPA practitioners must make a better case for recovery of the near shore already-impacted sites, than those that are offshore where fishing and other pressures are lesser. This is a vital distinction between the conservation objectives near to our heavily populated centres as oppose to offshore hard-to-reach places (i.e. 'restore inshore'; 'protect offshore remote' sites). 

The danger I face comes from ignorant ministers believing that protection of neareshore heavily modified habitats at their current ecological state is - by any metric - worthwhile. The UK is currently considering management measures for its heavily used neareshore sites, and is fighting with the usual suspects (fishing and ports) over the need to protect anything that could become ecologically more diverse if benthic trawling / dredging and mining were restricted in order to allow benthic biodiversity to recover. Furthermore, we appear to be wedded to the idea that we must observe certain 'features' existing or recovering within sites as our conservation target(s), rather than allowing the process of ecological succession to happen of its own volition. - wildlife and natural processes cannot be easily controlled.

As such, much like in the Australian example of picking 'low hanging fruit' for restrictive management as outlined in Devillers et al (2014) for AUS waters, the UK and EU are going through a process of watering down any potentially regenerative role of offshore MPAs where there is fishing by different EU member states. Similarly, nearshore sediment-dominated MPAs are starting to have very small areas protected within them within the wider MPA boundaries. Again this is because of the strength of the fishing lobby, and leads to a residual effect. Highly costly for (perhaps) a little return?

So, its obvious why governments go for large-scale offshore sites. they are usually 'sexier', easier to set up, make governments look 'good/ethical', and have little industrial use. It's up to NGOs, civil society, scientists and MPA practitioners to make the case for recovery objectives of MPAs closer to home. Then we'll be perhaps in the position to see some of the relict biodiversity come back to something approaching more historical baselines. Sometimes the legislation can help to drive this, but often governments will not deliver on such 'radical' measures by using unambitious legislation. Spokespersons for recovery objectives within industry are vital for overcoming such resistance.

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