Marine Protected Areas

Data Highlights

Implemented MPAs

4.8% of ocean (2018)

MPAtlas, 2018

Avg. growth rate of MPA coverage

8% per year (1960–2017)

Worm (Nature, 2017)

Portion of high seas in MPAs

1.2% of high seas (2018)

MPAtlas, 2018

Portion of the ocean protected

As of early 2019, 4.8 percent of the world’s ocean was protected in implemented marine protected areas (MPAs).1,2 Roughly half of this amount, 2.2 percent of the ocean, was protected as "highly protected marine reserves." Implementing proposed or officially announced MPAs would increase the overall level of protection to 7.4 percent of the ocean.

The United Nations’ target for global ocean protection is 10 percent of the coastal and marine areas in MPAs by 2020, as set forth by Aichi Target 11 under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) reaffirms this commitment. According to the most rigorous projections, collective commitments are not currently on track to meet the 10 percent global target by 2020, although numerous countries will meet the 10 percent target for areas within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).3 Many scientists emphasize, however, that the 10 percent target is intended as a first milestone for global ocean protection, rather than an endpoint.4

Source: Adapted from Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

The MPA coverage statistics presented here are based on data from the Atlas of Marine Protection (MPAtlas.org), a project of the Marine Conservation Institute, which conducts research and follow-up verification to capture the actual level of MPA protection. Other sources, including the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) upon which the Atlas of Marine Protection uses for baseline records, may overestimate the extent of protected area due to reliance on self-reported data from governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders.

In the lead-up to the 2020 deadline, several leading marine scientists have called for definitional clarity and improved accounting to ensure that coverage statistics honestly and accurately reflect what is protected on the water.5

In 2020, the global community is expected to adopt a new 10-year global biodiversity framework with a new global target for ocean protection. Stakeholders are currently holding discussions about potential conservation goals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) initially proposed the most ambitious target, calling for the protection of at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.6

Recent trends in MPAs

Several trends stand out as the global community has sought to achieve 10 percent protection of coastal and marine areas. At a high-level, those trends include: 1) an accelerated rate of MPA declarations in anticipation of 2020 targets, 2) a rise in designating large-scale marine reserves in remote areas, 3) an underperformance in ensuring ecological connectivity and representation, 4) a varied pattern of protection by ocean basis, and 5) increased attention on the protection of the high seas.

Accelerated rate of MPA declarations

The rate of MPA coverage has increased rapidly in recent years as governments race to meet coverage targets by 2020.7 For several decades, MPA coverage hovered around 1 percent. During 2006–2015, the increased interest in designating very large MPAs (over 100,000 km2) and meeting Aichi targets accelerated the rate of MPA designations. Since 2015, MPAs have been designated at an even faster rate in anticipation of the 2020 target deadlines.8

Fig. 6.2. Map of MPAs by recentness of implementation

Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

According to current projections, MPA commitments are not on track to meet the 10 percent global target by 2020. Although the global community may fall short of reaching the 10 percent target, several countries (e.g., Palau, United States, Great Britain) are poised to exceed the 10 percent protection target for areas within their EEZ.9,10

Source: Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

Rise in large-scale marine reserves in remote areas

The past decade in particular has seen a rise of large MPAs in remote areas of the ocean, usually in locations with low human density and low levels of commercial use and industrial fishing. Protecting remote areas which are far from human-use conflicts is generally more politically expedient and less likely to encounter resistance from resource users.11

On one hand, large remote MPAs provide several benefits, including protecting the entire home ranges of individuals, maintaining ecological functions over larger spatial scales, and safeguarding the most pristine expanses of the ocean. At the same time, MPAs in densely-populated coastal zones play an important role in negotiating access among resource user groups. Both approaches are necessary to ensure ecological functioning and minimize human impact on the marine environment.

Fig. 6.4. Map of MPAs by protection level and implementation status

Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

Underperformance in ensuring ecological connectivity and representation

Aside from including the target of 10 percent coverage by 2020, Aichi Target 11 also includes language which calls for ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas. As shown in Figure 6.5, there is a high frequency of red polygons, which indicates the lowest level of protected area coverage within marine ecoregions. The ideal scenario would be for all ecoregions shown in the teal category on this map, representing 10 percent or greater coverage within MPAs.

The full target goal for Aichi Target 11 is: “By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent 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.”12 While countries race to reach overall coverage targets, it appears that the ability to ensure ecological connectivity and representation has fallen short—which is partly due to the political capital required and intricacies of implementing large-scale systematic conservation planning processes.13

Fig. 6.5. Map of MPA coverage by ecoregion: Biogeographic representation

Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

Varied patterns of protection by ocean basin

The Southern Ocean has the highest level of protection among all ocean basis, followed by the South Pacific Ocean and the South Atlantic Ocean. If current proposals by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) are adopted and implemented (including the East Antarctic and Weddell Sea proposals), the Southern Ocean would achieve 20 percent MPA coverage. Oceania also has a high level of MPA coverage due to a combination of factors: numerous large-scale MPAs; several remote and uninhabited islands and atolls where pelagic fishing effort is limited; and a strong cultural heritage for marine protection given the inextricable link to livelihoods in the region.14

Fig. 6.6. Map of MPA coverage across ocean basins

Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

Increased attention on the protection of the high seas

As of January 2019, 1.2 percent of the high seas were protected in MPAs. Of this amount, 0.8 percent of the high seas were highly protected.15 Several stakeholders are calling for increased and coordinated protection of the high seas, which are beyond the control of any one state.

Fig. 6.8. Level of marine protection in the high seas

Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

The high seas, which comprise 60 percent of the expanse of the ocean, lie beyond national EEZs. In September 2018, the United Nations held the first session to negotiate a treaty to improve management of the high seas to protect biodiversity. It is anticipated that the U.N. process may lead to a new treaty in 2020, though it will likely take several additional years to fully ratify and implement the treaty. While the global community is not expected to achieve 10 percent MPA coverage in the high seas by 2020, it is anticipated that the UN treaty process will streamline currently disconnected management and regulatory processes.16 As such, actions to protect the high seas are expected to accelerate over the next 5-10 years.

Recent significant designations and announcements

The following list includes significant MPAs which were recently designated or announced.

Table. 6.1. Recent significant MPA designations and announcements

Designated Marine Protected Areas and Reserves

Year Status Name Total Area (km2) No-Take Area (km2) Nation or Authority Highly Protected Reserve
2018 Implemented Yaganes Marine National Park 69,000 Argentina
2018 Implemented Namuncurá – Burdwood Bank II 29,000 Argentina
2018 Implemented Commonwealth Marine 2,328,539 442,557 Australia
2018 Pending implementation Trinidade e Martim Vaz Environmental Protection Area 472,481 67,677 Brazil
2018 Pending implementation São Pedro e São Paulo Environmental Protection Area 431,386 47,192 Brazil
2017 Implemented Ross Sea Protected Area 1,549,000 1,117,000 CCAMLR
2017 Implemented Micronesia MPA 184,948 0 Micronesia
2017 Pending implementation Juan Fernandez Marine Park 262,000 262,000 Chile
2017 Pending implementation Mar de Cabo de Hornos Marine Park 140,200 140,200 Chile
2017 Pending implementation Revillagigedo National Park 147,629 147,629 Mexico
2017 Pending implementation Niue MPA 126,909 some Niue
2017 Pending implementation Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area 109,000 0 Canada
2016 Implemented Papahānaumokuakea Marine National Monument 1,508,870 1,508,870 United States
2016 Implemented Terres Australes Francaises 673,000 120,000 France
2016 Implemented Pacífico Mexicano Profundo 577,800 some Mexico
2016 Implemented St Helena Marine Protection Zone 445,000 0 United Kingdom
2016 Pending implementation Ascension Ocean Sanctuary 234,291 234,291 United Kingdom
2015 Implemented Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve 834,334 834,334 United Kingdom
2015 Implemented Palau National Marine Sanctuary 500,000 500,000 by 2020 Palau
2015 Implemented Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park 297,518 297,518 Chile
2015 Pending implementation Rapa Nui Rahui MPA 631,368 some Chile
2015 Pending implementation Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary 620,000 620,000 New Zealand
2014 Implemented Pacific Remote islands Marine National Monument 1,270,000 1,270,000 United States

Proposals and Commitments

Year Status Name Total Area (km2) No-Take Area (km2) Nation or Authority Highly Protected Reserve
2018 Pending implementation Phakisa Oceans Economy Marine Protected Area Network 50,000 South Africa
2017 Pending implementation (proposed) Te Tai Nui A Hau MPA 5,000,000 Marquesas (France)
2016 Pending implementation (committed) Tristan da Canha 750,000 750,000 United Kingdom
2015 Pending implementation (proposed) East Antarctic 1,220,000 1,220,000 CCAMLR

Note: This list was updated in January 2019 and may not include subsequent MPA designations. Source: Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org

MPA management and governance

As MPAs have rapidly expanded in number and coverage to represent a leading conservation tool for ocean protection, the level of success among MPAs has been varied and uneven.17 Research associating the efficacy of MPA management processes to conservation outcomes has traditionally been limited to theory and local-scale case studies. However, a recent global study by Gill et al. (2017) suggests staff capacity and budget capacity are the strongest predictors in explaining fish biomass responses to MPA protection.18 MPAs with adequate staff and budget capacity had fish recoveries which were nearly three times as large as those without adequate capacity.19

Fig. 6.9. Relationship between MPA management processes and ecological impact

Fig.6.10. Relationship between MPA management processes and ecological impact chart

Random forest variable importance measures for management and other variables as they related to ecological effects in 62 MPAs. Adapted from source: Gill, D.A. et al. “Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally.” 2017. Nature (543): 665-671.

The study found that only 35 percent of MPAs surveyed had a sufficient budget to manage their protected area, while only 9 percent had adequate staff capacity.

As this research highlights, the rapid expansion of protected areas without corresponding investment in capacity is not poised to yield positive conservation outcomes. Particularly as anthropogenic pressures on marine resources increase, it is critical to ensure adequate capacity for MPA management, monitoring, and finance.

Fig. 6.10. Reported level of MPA staff capacity

Fig.6.11. Reported level of MPA staff capacity (map)

MPAs reporting adequate (dark blue), inadequate or below optimum (blue) and no (light blue) staff capacity in their most recent management assessments where spatial data were available [n=243 MPAs; excludes MPAs with intermediate scores (n=5)]. Adapted from source: Gill, D.A. et al. “Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally.” 2017. Nature (543): 665-671.

Marine Protected Areas Notes

  1. Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org.
  2. The definition of ‘Marine Protected Area’ is adopted from Lubchenco and Colvert (Science, 2015): “lightly protected” MPAs reference MPAs in which some protection exists but significant extractive activity is allowed; “highly protected” MPAs permit only light recreation and subsistence fishing (all commercial activity is prohibited); and “fully protected” MPAs are those for which no extractive activities are allowed. The term “Marine Protected Area” encompasses all three categories.
  3. Sala, Enric, Jane Lubchenco, Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, Catherine Novelli, Callum Roberts, and U. Rashid Sumaila. “Assessing Real Progress towards Effective Ocean Protection.” Marine Policy 91 (May 2018): 11–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2018.02.004
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “IUCN Members Approve 30%-by-2030 Goal for MPAs — Most Ambitious Target So Far for MPA Coverage,” MPA News, October 27, 2016. Accessed December 28, 2018. https://mpanews.openchannels.org/news/mpa-news/iucn-members-approve-30-2030-goal-mpas-%E2%80%94-most-ambitious-target-so-far-mpa-coverage.
  7. Worm, Boris. “How to Heal an Ocean: Marine Conservation.” Nature 543, no. 7647 (March 2017): 630–31. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature21895.
  8. Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org.
  9. Sala, Enric, Jane Lubchenco, Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, Catherine Novelli, Callum Roberts, and U. Rashid Sumaila. “Assessing Real Progress towards Effective Ocean Protection.” Marine Policy 91 (May 2018): 11–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2018.02.004.
  10. Marine Conservation Institute, 2018.
  11. Luiz Rocha, “Bigger is not better for ocean conservation,” The New York Times, March 20, 2018. Accessed December 28, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/20/opinion/environment-ocean-conservation.html.
  12. Convention on Biological Diversity, “Target 11 – Technical Rationale.” CBD Strategic Plan 2011-2020. Accessed December 28, 2018. https://www.cbd.int/sp/targets/rationale/target-11/.
  13. Russell Moffitt, Marine Conservation Institute, personal communication, October 19, 2018.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Marine Conservation Institute, MPAtlas (Seattle, 2018), www.mpatlas.org.
  16. Russell Moffitt, Marine Conservation Institute, personal communication, January 11, 2019.
  17. Gill, D.A. et al. “Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally.” 2017. Nature (543): 665-671.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.