Marine Protected Areas Increasing, But Is Coverage The Right Measure For Success?

Progress in marine biodiversity conservation may not be as great as the numbers initially suggest; a call for a fresh look at today’s commonly used metrics.

ARLINGTON, VA | October 09, 2012

New research from The Nature Conservancy and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre shows that important advances have been made in establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) globally. However, their analysis of the data also reveals that progress in marine biodiversity conservation may not be as great as the numbers initially suggest, and call for a fresh look at today’s commonly used metrics. 

“MPAs cannot be islands of conservation in a sea of depletion, and we need to think of them and design them with the bigger picture in mind,” said Imèn Meliane, Director of International Marine Policy at The Nature Conservancy and one of the report’s authors. “To successfully reach the global target, there is an urgent need to improve definitions of what protection means, and how to measure progress towards effective conservation. It is fundamental to the success of any MPAs that they be considered as part of a wider management strategy, including both marine and terrestrial management measures. MPAs cannot be islands of conservation in a sea of depletion, and we need to think of them and design them with the bigger picture in mind.” 

“For years now we’ve been pointing out the benefits of MPAs to people, but we need to work harder to put this into practice and design them to truly deliver on their promise” concluded report author Mark Spalding, Senior Marine Scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “We need to start putting MPAs where the threats are, bring them home and make them local. A simplistic pursuit of MPA coverage targets is meaningless if we do not also account for the needs of people. MPAs really can make a difference to lives and livelihoods: enhancing fish catches, reducing storm damage and raising tourism revenues. Get it right and everyone will want them.” 

The findings were presented in Hyderabad, India, at the eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 11) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Representatives from over 190 countries are meeting to discuss ways to protect the planet’s biodiversity, particularly focusing on how to meet the CBD’s “Aichi Biodiversity Targets” for the 2011-2020 time period. 

Aichi Target 11 states that “By 2020, at least…10 percent 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.” 

MPA coverage is the primary indicator used for assessing progress toward this target, and the research shows that MPA coverage has shown dramatic increases in recent years. 

Findings and Trends 

In 2010, an estimated 1.31 percent of the ocean surface was covered by MPAs. Today’s findings show that MPAs now cover over 8.3 million square kilometers, or 2.3 percent of the global ocean area, and there is now MPA representation in all coastal realms and provinces. Twenty-eight countries and territories (out of 193) have over 10 percent MPA coverage, an increase from just 12 countries listed in 2010. These statistics represent a quadrupling of MPA coverage over the last 10 years. 

Driving this change is a strong trend to set up large MPAs in areas far away from people, where conflict with other ocean uses is relatively low. Indeed, 60 percent of the entire global MPA coverage is within the 20 largest MPAs which alone cover over 5 million square kilometers. This pattern looks set to continue, with new sites proposed for Australia, New Caledonia and the Cook Islands likely to add another 5.2 million square kilometers to the global estate in the coming 12-24 months. 

Recent trends in MPA coverage suggest that global coverage could reach 10 percent even before 2020. Using a broader definition of MPAs and “equivalent areas,” it might even be claimed that the 10 percent target has already been reached. 

New Elements for Consideration and Future Criteria for Assessment 

Such apparent success, however, would mask some significant failings, as the Aichi Target 11 calls for a great deal more than MPA coverage. For example, the target places an important focus on protecting “ecosystem services,” or the potential for using MPAs to support people. This will require that much greater attention is given to the development of conservation measures close to centers of population where reliance on marine ecosystem services is high. 

The rapid progress in marine protection and the proliferation of approaches requires a more holistic vision of marine protection beyond traditional tracking of MPA coverage. Four primary recommendations for improvements in MPAs were presented in the report today. First, there should be a clear definition of conservation objectives and what should be counted in the 10 percent coverage. Second, greater attention should be given to areas that best safeguard ecosystem services and better link to delivering social, cultural and economic benefits to people. Third, there should be benchmarks against which to assess the MPAs that are “effectively and equitably managed.” And fourth, MPAs should be embedded in a wider context of comprehensive marine and coastal management. 

Today’s presentation by The Nature Conservancy was based on research being done for a paper that will be published early next year in Ocean Yearbook.

View the complete policy brief.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.

Contact information

Heather Layman
The Nature Conservancy
+1 703-841-3929

Amy Milam
+44 1223 277314

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