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Sea Turtle

Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, protect and conserve ocean ecosystems, species, and habitats -- similar to national parks or forest reserves on land.


The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines MPAs as areas whose primary objective is the conservation of nature:

“An MPA is a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”


MPAs vary in how strongly they protect against various anthropogenic threats, and several classification systems have been developed to differentiate among various types of MPAs. The MPA Guide, co-authored by IOCS’s Ellen Pikitch, was released in 2021 and contains a classification system based on an MPA’s level of protection and stage of establishment. It also links expected outcomes to these MPA characteristics. 


Science has shown that well-implemented, highly or fully protected MPAs can have very positive results for marine environments and human well-being. Benefits of MPAs include larger fish, more abundant fish, increased reproduction, the protection of habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves, enhanced community involvement, maintenance of social and cultural traditions and increased economic opportunity and income. 


Recently, in part due to globally agreed targets for ocean protection, the number of MPAs has more than doubled globally and now protects almost 8% of the ocean.  But despite the uptick in MPAs, political action still lags behind the urgent need for more and better quality MPAs.

How is IOCS involved?

MPAs are a major focus at IOCS because we believe they are an underutilized tool that can yield great benefits for the ocean as well as coastal communities. We understand that balancing use and protection of the ocean is critically important and requires tradeoffs and diplomacy.


Our team works on MPAs at the global, national, and local levels. At the United Nations, we’ve brought scientific information directly to diplomats of dozens of countries. Our faculty, staff and graduate students often attend and present at international conferences on MPAs, and frequently contribute to strategic workshops and panels as invited experts.  Examples include developing the MPA Guide, the IUCN MPA Standards, and the UN Ocean Dialogues


We conducted a project to identify Marine Priority Areas, and in 2019, published a paper and launched an online map showing where new or expanded MPAs could be most beneficial around the world. This project was funded by the Italian Ministry of Environment.


MPAs must also be sufficiently financed, since a lack of funding for personnel, equipment, and enforcement can lead to “paper parks” that do not achieve their conservation goals. Our lab is examining how to improve financial sustainability for MPAs using case studies in Colombia, Bonaire, and Belize.  This includes a recent publication that showcases a valuable decision-making tool for evaluating mechanisms that can financially support MPAs. 


It is also important to understand the quantity, distribution and representativeness of MPAs on a national scale, especially for countries that have jurisdiction over large ocean areas. We have been working with colleagues at Shanghai Jai Tong University to evaluate MPAs in China, and in late 2021, published an analysis in the journal Science Advances. And in May 2022, Dr. Pikitch co-authored a study analyzing the status of ocean protection in the United States.   


We will continue our work in MPA finance and management, as well as expand our research scope to include Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) that can complement MPAs and have been included among international goals for spatial ocean protection. With our multi-faceted track record on MPAs, IOCS is poised to be a leader in steering global efforts over the next decade and beyond. 


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