When is an MPA not an MPA? The case against advocating for MPA networks

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By Ameer Abdulla, ameer.abdulla [at] gmail.com

When is an MPA not an MPA?  When it is an area that is not protecting marine resources, but instead managing them and allowing for their regulated use.  The answer seems simple and I may be stating the obvious.  So why is it that we still struggle with calling areas that are not no-take zones — that are not protected — marine protected areas when clearly they should be called marine managed areas (MMAs)?  “Marine protected area” should be a term used only to describe a no-take marine reserve, not an area that is managed with different zones that may or may not include a no-take zone.

The IUCN definition for Marine Protected Area seems to be derived from a terrestrial definition of Protected Areas,* and may in fact more aptly describe a marine managed area:

“A protected area is 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.” – IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas

Is this just an academic debate over semantics and an exercise in theoretical cogitation?  I think not.  The implications can be seen on the ground and in the field. 

Globally, marine conservation practitioners advocate (and preach) designing and developing coherent networks of MPAs in different ecoregions and large marine ecosystems of the world.  The science is clear that no-take areas that are ecologically connected and spatially replicated afford marine biodiversity the best opportunity to persist and to recover from impacts (local or global, natural or anthropogenic).  However, it is not clear that these no-take areas are implementable at a rate higher than the rate of current biodiversity loss in the oceans.  In fact, many scientific papers and grey reports have described how we are failing geographically and systematically to reach any of the international targets set for marine protection under the Convention on Biological Diversity.  Although calls for representative networks of MPAs have been frequent and global in the past two decades, progress toward on-the-ground protection in developing countries has faltered severely due to several reasons, not least of which is stakeholder opposition (as well as the lack of financial resources, technical capacity, and institutional will). 

A more pragmatic option

In places where I work in the Red Sea, Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean, developing marine managed areas that can in the future include MPAs or, specifically, no-take zones is more politically and institutionally acceptable than aiming for marine protected areas and no-take zones from the onset.  The term “marine protected area” is often enough to end discussions or reduce stakeholder interest — another reason to clarify the definition with accurate labelling.  Attempting to declare such areas as strict no-take MPAs will face stiff opposition and cause long delays in gazetting, if gazetting is at all possible.  (Certainly the opposite approach is more difficult to implement and compromises the primary objective of marine resource protection.  For instance, an established no-take zone that is not buffered by management zones [i.e., that is not within an MMA] will frequently be subject to user infringement in the form of poaching, trespassing, etc., with the loss of biodversity the inevitable result.)  Finally, calling a marine managed area an MPA will mislead and misdirect national and international conservation efforts looking to invest in real (no-take) protection in seas and oceans. 

Establishing networks of MMAs that may or may not include no-take zones provides more opportunities for legal designation, credible establishment, and effective and comprehensive management of marine resources than establishing strict MPAs or individual, un-linked MMAs.  We utilize this approach in the Indian Ocean where the many island resorts provide a credible platform for coral reef management.  Ecological surveys to assess reef biodiversity and resilience on individual islands are used to develop house reef management plans that are then endorsed by government and resort managers.  A key strength of this approach is the capacity to address both local and regional scale management needs.  In Small Island Developing States with large geographical expanses and a diversity of reefs, this may be the most useful approach for conserving coral reef resources.

So rather than an IUCN definition for MPA with many categories, there should be an IUCN definition for MMA, of which one category — 1a — is a strict nature reserve and MPA.  The other categories can outline the other types of management.

So, as responsible scientists and managers, can we advocate for networks of Marine Managed Areas instead of strict or inaccurately labelled Marine Protected Areas?  Can we work hard to include no-take zones within these areas, depending on the prevailing ecological and social conditions?  Do you think that this is indeed a change in approach to marine resource protection and management?  Do you think that this is the right approach globally?

* The IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas has released new guidelines for applying the IUCN protected area management categories to MPAs — https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_categoriesmpa_eng.pdf.

Dr. Ameer A. Abdulla is a Conservation Science Fellow with the Centre of Biodiversity and Conservation Science and ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland.  Ameer is also Senior Advisor to the IUCN Global Marine and Polar Program and a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.


Ameer, This is a nicely provocative piece. I too share you concerns about the true efficacy and in-practice side of Protected Area networks on the land as well as the sea. Here in California we have a new network of statewide MPAs being rolled out. Our definition of an MPA network includes some areas with extraction of one sort or another permitted (surface kelp canopy extraction, etc.), although the emphasis is on no-take zones/units. Given the emphasis here in on true MPA, I think the notion of an "MPA network" is valid here. But I also work in the developing world (in the Middle East) and know that there is almost no such thing as a National Park (save for paper parks), let alone any effective type of no-take region unless it is a military zone. Rather than create a whole new suite of IUCN categories, why not simply consider MMAs as an IUCN category 6: Managed Resource Protected Areas. Following you logic, I think this would be the best fit in the existing scheme.

Dear Ameer, thanks for this provocation. Here in Brazil this is exactly our problem: the current government of Brazil is faking the "increase in MPAs" by declaring absolutely useless "Environmental Protection Areas" and Extractive Reserves" which PROMOTE the direct take of marine resources by certain communities instead of protecting biodiversity for the good of the entire country. The current President, a hostage to the corporate mafias of offshore oil and industrial fishing, has simply vetoed any further establihsment of National Marine Parks and other TRUE marine protected areas. IUCN is largely to blame for this global trend in fake MPAS and bureaucratic, useless "networks" by emphasizing too much the so-called "community-based" conservation, mostly an ineffectual demagoguery when it comes to the actual management of resources in the long term. The world needs to stop this hypocrisy and get back to establishing ACTUAL MPAs and calling whatever else by another name related to management for direct takes. All the best to you.

Ameer, I share your doubts. I think we are inheriting a past in which the world was divided in non-protected (lots) and protected (little), with fences in between which might have worked on land but don't really in the sea. This inheritance is cumbersome and somewhat crippling, but it is what we have. Ideally, the whole ocean, not just part of it, should be managed for sustainability, and management should include setting aside for effective protection all the areas that are needed to conserve marine biodiversity. In other words, NTZs should be the final product of the process. Historical reasons and the need to act with urgency are forcing us to work the other way around, which is a far cry from ideal. So I also have questions: will Marine Spatial Planning address this concern and help revert to a more rational process? If yes, won't Marine Spatial Planning be vulnerable to being hijacked by the various industries, military etc. so that marine biodiversity and ecosystem protection will remain perfunctory? What can be done to avoid this all too likely scenario? As far as European seas are concerned, can the EC be trusted to be the watchdog for the environment, and steer the process to ensure that vulnerable species, communities and ecosystems are properly safeguarded?

For a long time I have been a lonely advocate in Spain and in some international fora that only no-take areas (also often called "marine reserves") should be named MPAs . However, there seems to be a proclivity, or perhaps interest, among different groups, scientists, managers, ..., in using the term MPA to areas where the objective of protection is biodiversity, ecosystem structure and function or rehabilitation of threatened species, etc., which are seen as high level ecosystem conservation objectives, and to use the term "marine reserve" to areas that are often no-take and that that have, or are viewed to have, fisheries management objectives, which are often percieved as low level, or no. ecosystem conservation objectives. The irony is that ecosystem protection is much higher, and often only real, in the later. I see in the first 2013 issue of MPA News the World Commission on Protected Areas is moving in the direction proposed by Ameer. This is a much needed move to make sure that when we say or read MPA it means "protected" and not "more or less fished". In my opionon only areas closed to any extractive activity should be called MPAs and believe that the term Marina Managed Areas is not necessary, an potentially easy to tamper with, as most of the fished areas iin the world allow fishing with some restrictions in types of gears, effort, seasonal closures, species, etc.

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