Marine Protected Areas

Nature’s Investment Bank

Nature's Investment Bank

In this preview of the documentary "Nature's Investment Bank," a Fijian leader discusses the economic value of marine protected areas.


Many of the world’s richest and most diverse habitats are found in places where poverty is a real and pressing issue. But all too often, conservation is considered a luxury that impoverished communities cannot afford.

In one of the first studies of its kind, The Nature Conservancy has worked with leading academics on a study that conclusively proves that marine protected areas (MPAs) can help alleviate poverty.

The report, titled "Nature’s Investment Bank," found that MPAs can lead to:

  • improved fish catches
  • new jobs, mostly in tourism
  • stronger local governance
  • benefits to health
  • benefits to women

The findings provide recommendations for how to protect unique marine life while improving the well-being of impoverished communities who depend on fishing for food and livelihoods.

Linking Poverty Reduction and Marine Protected Areas

The groundbreaking study, led by an economist from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and an independent social scientist, was conducted at four separate locations in the Pacific:

An MPA is an area of ocean or coastal water that is recognized by both government and society as having specific conservation value. Measures are put in place to preserve the quality of marine life that can include restricted access for fishing, diving and other potentially harmful activities.

MPAs are a key component of the Conservancy’s strategy to conserve ocean and coastal habitats. We work to identify, protect and restore some of most resilient examples of healthy ocean and coastal habitats in ways that benefit marine life, coastal communities and economies. Our global effort includes protecting unique underwater landscapes such as Kimbe Bay in Papua New Guinea and the Florida Keys. The sites for this study were deliberately chosen because local experts believed marine conservation efforts there had contributed to poverty reduction.

“By focusing on potentially positive examples, we aimed to identify key factors for success that could be replicated elsewhere,” explains Craig Leisher, co-author of the report and a senior policy advisor for the Conservancy.

Working in partnership with local non-governmental organizations and universities, the researchers talked to over 1,100 local people about the changes they had seen in their quality of life since the creation of the nearby marine protected areas. Across the four sites, there was clear evidence that poverty had been reduced by several factors:

  • Improved fish catches. Fish are now “spilling over” from the no-fishing zones of the four marine protected areas, leading to increased catches and higher incomes for fishers at three of the sites.
  • New jobs, mostly in tourism. The marine protected areas’ greatest boost to household incomes came from new jobs, especially in eco-tourism. In Apo Island, tourism has surpassed fishing as the largest source of income.
  • Stronger local governance. In all four study sites, community governance mechanisms were established for the management of the marine protected area. Involving the community in management and decision-making of the marine protected area gave the communities a more united voice and frequently reduced conflict within the communities and with neighboring communities.
  • Benefits to health. Greater fish catches led to greater protein intake in Navakavu and Apo Island and a perceived improvement in children’s health in particular. In Bunaken, visitor entry fees improved public health by funding water-supply tanks, public toilets and washing places in several villages.
  • Benefits to women. In all four sites, the marine protected area helped empower women economically and in some cases socially. In the Arnavons, the development of alternative livelihoods to fishing, such as seaweed farming and basket weaving, provided new income opportunities for women. As a result, they gained a stronger voice in community meetings.
Harnessing the Benefits of Marine Protected Areas

The Conservancy hopes that governments will use these study findings to harness the full benefits of marine protected areas to improve the well-being of local people while conserving marine life. The study recommends key strategies for strengthening the creation and management of MPAs that include:

  • Committing to financial investment in protected areas, both in the initial set up and in subsequent years.
  • Developing a network of smaller, ecologically connected MPA sites, each linked to a community, to increase local access to benefits.
  • Empowering local communities in the decision making and management of the marine protected area.

“Marine protected areas and local communities need each other. Without the support of the local community, marine protected areas will not succeed,” says Leisher.

“Similarly, by preserving marine life, we can help the communities that depend on the bounty of the sea for their survival. We should not artificially separate conservation and poverty reduction in the places where we work — they are almost always inextricably linked.”

Saving for the Future

“The marine protected area is like a bank to the people,” noted a Fijian community leader. 

By conserving marine resources, people will reap higher returns in the future.

The study findings demonstrate that opening more branches of the “bank” in developing countries can contribute to coastal poverty reduction.

Read More About the Study