Qualifying just any spatial zoning as an ‘MPA’ only diminishes the tool

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By Joachim Claudet, National Center for Scientific Research, joachim.claudet [at] gmail.com

“Marine protected areas are effective tools for fisheries management and biodiversity conservation.” This assertion used to be found in many articles of the conservation or fisheries scientific literature. It might now, however, be registered on the list of endangered sentences. The study of marine protected areas (MPAs) emerged in the 1990s and about 20 years were needed to clearly identify their ecological and socio-economic benefits. Today, the scientific results that led to such conclusions cannot be generalized anymore. How to explain what appears to be a regression? Could the effectiveness of such tools have decreased? The answer appears to be, unfortunately, more prosaic.

The evaluation of an MPA involves the identification of its objectives, some success criteria, and measurable indicators to determine whether these criteria are met. Then, rigorous sampling design, data collection, and analysis are necessary. All of this requires defining in advance what an MPA is. An MPA can be seen as a marine area geographically defined, established by international, national, territorial, tribal or local law, designated to improve the long-term conservation of its biodiversity and natural resources. This definition is broadly accepted.

Looking at it more closely, two types of MPAs emerge. First, there are the “multiple-use MPAs”, with partial protection: some uses are prohibited (e.g., underwater fishing), others regulated (e.g., fishing trammel nets) and others allowed (e.g., diving). This is the case of the Medes Islands MPA near Barcelona, Spain, and the West Hawaii Marine Park, Hawaii, USA.

Second, there are “marine reserves”, which are specific types of MPAs where all extractive uses (e.g., fishing) are prohibited and where, often, non-extractive uses (e.g., diving) are as well. This is known as full protection. This is the case for reserves Carry-le-Rouet and Cape Couronne, near Marseilles, France, and the Channel Islands marine reserves in California, USA.

Most MPAs worldwide are either marine reserves or multiple-use MPAs that have marine reserves within them, thus combining partial and full protection. This is the case of Cerbères-Banyuls MPA, near Perpignan, France, or the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia.

The push to create more MPAs

These two types of MPAs have been extensively studied by scientists worldwide. Their ecological and socio-economic benefits as a tool for coastal management being established, States committed themselves at the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2006, to cover with MPAs 10% of their respective exclusive economic zones (up to 200 nautical miles from the coast) by 2010. At that time, the proportion was about 1.2%, with only 0.1% of full protection. At this rate, the objectives could not be achieved before ... 2047!

The gap between the targets and on-the-ground reality has led many countries to undertake the establishment of MPAs. Major projects have been completed or planned. A recent reassessment of the world’s MPA coverage leads to the conclusion that incredible progress has been made. Some countries have up to 100% of their cost covered by MPAs, and those with around half of their coasts covered are not rare. Are there strong reasons to be extremely happy or are these figures... just numbers without real meaning?

‘MPAs’ in name, not necessarily in practice

In many countries, including the most developed ones, no written law defines a uniform concept of what an MPA is. The temptation was great to declare as an MPA various statutes of already existing coastal management. Some can see it as an attempt to harmonize an administrative and legal coastal zoning that can sometimes be very complicated and confusing for the users. Others simply see it as a way to inflate their countries’ MPA coverage numbers.

In Europe, areas as diverse as the Natura 2000 network sites or various national coastal zoning can be considered as MPAs. Without questioning the usefulness of such areas, they do not necessarily share the objective of MPAs, namely the long-term conservation of biodiversity and natural resources. Evaluating these areas with the same framework used for “traditional” MPAs would lead mostly to the conclusion that they are not effective.

Another recent phenomenon is the development of very large MPAs. This approach, on paper, is also laudable. However, again, some can see these establishments as a way to inflate the numbers, or even a way for some States to extend their sovereignty out of their exclusive economic zones on some ultra-marine territories (e.g., the UK Chagos MPA and the French Mayotte Marine Park, both in the Indian Ocean). Before the establishment of MPAs in these areas, often remote from densely populated areas, the direct pressures by human exploitation were very low. Besides, being far from the centers of socio-economic activities, very few people would benefit from them. They surely have an unarguable heritage value, which is clearly important in itself. But again, an assessment with a “traditional” MPA grid would tend to conclude that these MPAs are not always effective, while the 10% target of MPA coverage was driven by the identified benefits MPAs can have.

Finally, the most critical case is that many MPAs exist only on paper. Lacking any management plan, staff, and/or funding for enforcement activities (whether surveillance or communication), these areas clearly cannot meet their stated objectives. However, they increase the proportion of States' areas covered by MPAs. These MPAs are far from being specific to developing countries with few financial resources and can for instance easily be found in European countries (e.g., Cylopes MPA in Sicily, Italy, or the MPA network of Moorea in French Polynesia).

Our coasts and marine areas are threatened. We should aim at the best management actions to target a sustainable development. The flexibility provided by the existence of many management tools, often complementary, is necessary. However, it is important not to qualify as an MPA any spatial zoning, otherwise with the risk of diminishing the perception that users can have of this useful management tool, while their support and involvement are essential to the establishment and proper management of MPAs. Finally, another risk would be to suggest that MPAs alone are the solution to all problems of the oceans. Instead, the first brick should be a change in our own actions.

Joachim Claudet is a Researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Perpignan, France. Joachim specializes in MPAs, environmental impact assessment studies and coastal management. He also teaches an international workshop on MPAs. His personal website is http://joachim.claudet.free.fr


Hi Joachim, I enjoyed your post on Marine Reserves and MPAs and the issues surrounding management not only in developing countries. I am conducting PhD research on status and health of coral reefs and fisheries in the east Gulf of Thailand and am looking at the benefits of MPAs or reserves, howver management, if declared will be an issue. I'd like to discuss this further with you. Thanks Kath

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