Marine protected areas

Top 3 Challenges and Solutions for creating Marine Protected Areas

The world’s oceans have an estimated economic value of almost 24 trillion USD, which is higher than the entire GDP of the USA (22 trillion USD).  Our oceans have absorbed about 90% of the heat gained by the planet between 1955 and 2010, and more than 3 billion people depend on it for their livelihood. It is clear that our oceans are vital for both our environment and society. So, what is the status of our oceans? Well, they are getting degraded via pollution, overfishing and climate change. Have we done anything to change this? Yes, we have adopted the solution called Marine Protected Areas or MPAs. 

MPAs are dedicated ocean areas that restrict or heavily regulate human activities. Restrictions can include no development, setting fish catch limits, bans of removing marine life, etc. MPAs help with biodiversity conservation, stop degradation, and restore the productivity of the oceans while also having the chance to generate income through eco-tourism and sustainable fishing 

 Want to know a bit more about MPAs? Watch our video to get a quick snapshot of it.

From just 430 MPAs in 1985, we have more than 13000 MPAs active today, covering 6% of the world’s oceans. And scientists are telling us that it is not enough and that we need to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. If we fail to achieve this, then we will head towards irreversible destruction that could impact billions of people. However, if we are going to do this, we need to do it right because MPAs have certain challenges. Only if we overcome these challenges will protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 be effective. So, let us look at what these challenges are and how we can overcome them. 


     1.Poor Prioritization & Implementation 

To make an MPA successful, decision makers first need to identify and prioritize suitable marine areas to protect. Then, they need to follow through and make sure those marine protected areas are implemented correctly. However, there are instances where they try to rush this process and end up not meeting the conservation goals of MPAs. 

Take the example of MPAs in Brazil. In 2018, Brazil tried to reach their conservation goal quickly by identifying and prioritizing two large MPAs within their ocean territory. Brazil increased its protection status from 1.5% to 26% by declaring these locations as MPAs. But these two locations were in more remote ocean areas where conservation priorities would be lower than coastal or frequently fished regions which might need more attention. Brazil prioritized areas that did not need much protection and left out areas that required it more. It was criticized by scientists that Brazil only tried to achieve its goals only on paper with little benefit on the ground. 

If we look at Mexico, a study concluded that many MPAs here did not meet their conservation goals because of poor implementation. Factors like poor governance, lack of enforcement and no community participation were critical reasons for it.  

Conservationists refer to these highlighted Brazil and Mexico marine protected areas as paper parks because of their low contribution to ocean conservation. 

      2. Unequal Distribution of MPAs 

Not all parts of the ocean have enough MPAs. Currently, developed countries like the US, UK, Australia and from Europe lead in MPA creation. Many developing countries in Asia and North Africa have less than 5% of their respective oceans protected. One of the reasons for such unequal distribution of MPAs in developing countries is the weak financial and social support for MPAs. 

There are also limited MPAs in the high seas, which are ocean areas located outside the territorial waters of any country. These are the largest and most complex areas to protect because no single nation rules in these regions. Less than 2% of the high seas are currently protected while occupying around 60% of the global ocean.   

     3. Social Challenges 

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of areas within an MPA: no-take and multi-use areas.  

No-take zones provide better benefits than multi-use zones via larger fish and higher fish biomass in the MPA. There is also a strong scientific agreement that no-take MPAs provide better ecological benefits. 

However, no-take MPAs can be a challenge to the local community. Heavy restrictions could mean food insecurity, loss of livelihood, and income endanger the survival of the local community. Take the example of South Africa. During MPAs creation in South Africa, the local community were not included in the decision-making process. Due to this, many lost access to their fishing areas and therefore faced economic turmoil. Thus, overlooking social impacts can undermine the sustainability value offered by MPAs. MPAs need to consider all three elements of sustainability – environmental, social, and economic. 


Despite these challenges, Marine Protected Areas still provide many sustainable benefits to our ocean. Moreover, it also provides better economic, social, governance and cultural well-being to us humans. Well-managed MPAs with adequate staff are estimated to yield nearly 3 times more benefits than their poorly managed counterparts. This means that if we can overcome the challenges of MPAs, we will unlock their full potential. So, how can we overcome the above challenges?  

The most obvious and direct solutions include: 

  • For better prioritization and implementation, policymakers need to have a strong will and be accountable for choosing the most important marine areas to protect.  
  • To reduce the unequal distribution of MPAs, there needs to be a global effort in pooling financial and policy resources together to protect marine areas in developing countries and the high seas.  
  • For overcoming social challenges, stakeholder engagement is necessary, especially ensuring that local communities have a voice in the decision-making process. To take it a step further, we can even include the local community in MPA management to solve socio-economic challenges. There are case studies in Australia (Sea Country) and the Philippines that demonstrates this. In Sea Country, MPA was successful because they relied on the indigenous people and their traditional knowledge. In the Philippines, the local governments worked with the community. Such involvement of people not only helped with protection but also created new employment opportunities for them. 

Finally, all MPAs need to have active monitoring and assessment of the sites once it has been created. This is to optimize performance and benefits. 


The clock is ticking. We have until 2030 to not only protect 30% of the world’s ocean but also to ensure that we pick the correct marine areas, implement them with no shortcuts (that means no paper parks) and overcome social challenges with the support of the local community. Is this going to be challenging? Yes, absolutely. Is the margin for error small? Unfortunately, yes again. Can we do it? 3 for 3, yes, we can. But we need to act now, and we all need to work together.  




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