Environment Planet Earth Do Marine Protected Areas Work? Watered-down management plans limit the effectiveness of MPAs. By Tiffany Means Tiffany Means LinkedIn Twitter Writer University of North Carolina at Asheville Johns Hopkins University Tiffany Means is a meteorologist who has worked for CNN, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and more. Since 2017, she has worked as a freelance science writer covering natural disasters, the climate crisis, and the environment. Learn about our editorial process Updated June 22, 2021 Fact checked by Ben Brandstein Fact checked by Ben Brandstein Sarah Lawrence College New York University Ben Brandstein is a writer, proofreader, journalist, and podcast producer. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email MPAs aim to protect marine life, such as the Hawksbill turtle, which is critically endangered. Georgette Douwma / Getty Images Planet Earth Conservation Weather Outdoors In the field of marine conservation, a marine protected area (MPA) is an expanse of sea, ocean, estuaries, coastal waters, and, in the United States, the U.S. Great Lakes, where fishing, mining, drilling, and other extractive human activity is restricted in an effort to protect the waters’ natural resources and marine life. Deep-sea corals, for example, which can be up to 4,000 years old, can be damaged by fishing trawls that drag along the ocean floor, scooping up bottom-dwelling fish and crustaceans. By not allowing humans to deplete, disturb, or pollute waterways at will, MPAs discourage such damage to and disregard for sea life. But while MPAs provide a framework for us to sustainably interact with Earth's waters, weak enforcement of their rules and regulations means they're not always as effective as they aim to be. The Evolution of Marine Protected Areas An MPA sign in the Cook Islands. The island's Indigenous Peoples call the concept of conservation "ra'ui". Patrick Nunn / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 The idea of restricting access to marine areas as a way to revitalize them has existed for centuries. The Indigenous Peoples of the Cook Islands, for example, practice the "ra'ui" system, a tradition enacted by the Koutu Nui (traditional leaders) which temporarily prohibits fishing and foraging whenever a food source is in low supply. Modern-day MPAs, however, evolved over a period of decades from the 1960s onward, as myriad global conferences and conventions increased awareness of threats to our oceans. Some of the events that helped propel global MPAs forward include the 1962 First World Conference on National Parks, which explored the idea of creating marine parks and reserves to defend marine areas from human interference; and the International Union of Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) 1973 critical marine habitats project, which developed criteria for selecting and managing MPA sites. Also helping to shape global MPAs was the 1982 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea—a collection of treaties and international agreements, which established that nations "have the sovereign right to exploit their natural resources," but that they should do so "in accordance with their duty to protect and serve the marine environment." Meanwhile, the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, which prohibited ocean dumping, was largely responsible for kicking-off the MPA movement in the United States. That same year, the U.S. Congress established a MPA program managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to a report by the National Marine Protected Areas Center, 26% of U.S. waters (including the Great Lakes) are in some form of MPA, 3% of which are in the highest protected category of MPAs. Are Marine Protected Areas Effective? A pair of Hawaiian monk seals play at Oahu's Kaena Point State Park, one of Hawaii's MPAs. Lana Canada / Getty Images MPAs provide a multitude of conservation and climate benefits, including improving water quality, protecting species during spawning periods, and promoting greater biodiversity (variation of marine flora and fauna). A study in Science Magazine found that coral reefs that face less fishing pressure and that are located away from human populations see the greatest chance at recovery, whereas those facing intense human impacts rebound more slowly. The potential benefits of MPAs are so bountiful that in 2004, and again in 2010, the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity set a target of converting 10% of the world's marine areas into MPAs by 2020. While nations missed this international target, about 6% of global oceans is now covered by MPAs, according to the Marine Conservation Institute's marine protection atlas. Zoom in on the United States, and that number increases to 26%, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However, recent research suggests that the aerial coverage of MPAs may not be as important to marine safeguarding as two other factors: the type of MPA—"no-take" or partially-protected—that is implemented, and how closely an MPA site's rules and regulations are followed. "No-Take" Marine Reserves Offer the Greatest Benefits No-take MPAs, which are also known as "marine reserves," ban all activities that remove or harm marine life, whereas partially-protected MPAs allow some degree of human activity, such as fishing, boating, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, or more, within its borders. Because of this, some scientists, including social ecologist John Turnbull and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Australia, say partially-protected MPAs merely "create an illusion of protection." Conservationist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Enric Sala, also recognizes the benefit of no-take over partially-protected MPAs. According to his analysis published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, fish biomass (the weight of the fish used to interpret health) in marine reserves is over three times greater than that in partially-protected MPAs. Only 2.7% of global ocean areas and 3% of U.S. waters are in highly protected no-take zones. Stricter Regulation and Enforcement Is Needed Of course, even if no-take MPAs are in place, there's no guarantee that people will abide by their rules and regulations. Despite the fact that MPA zones and boundaries are mapped by NOAA, and are physically marked with buoys and signs, many are located in remote parts of the world, and aren't routinely policed, meaning the honor code system is largely in effect. A diver maintains a mooring buoy in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries / Flickr / Public Domain Sadly, visitors don't always act in a trustworthy manner when no one is looking. In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, for example, mooring buoys are installed so that visitors, who are allowed to boat, fish, and dive in the partially-protected MPA, may do so without damaging the reef with boat anchors. (Mooring buoys give boats a place to tie up to, and thereby avoid the need to drop anchor.) However, over 500 vessel groundings, on average, occur within the sanctuary every year. Such violations occur within international MPAs, too. A 2020 report by Oceana, a nonprofit organization which works to influence policy decisions to preserve and restore the world's oceans, revealed that 96% of the nearly 3,500 European MPAs surveyed, including the Natura 2000 MPAs, allowed at least one extractive or industrial activity, or infrastructural development (such as an oil/gas rig) within their boundaries. Oceana also found that 53% of MPA sites reported no active management. And where management plans did exist, 80% of those plans were incomplete or failed to address major threats affecting the sites. One remedy to the problem of ineffective MPA management is stricter oversight. Perhaps as the global community works toward the international goal of protecting 30% of the world's oceans by 2030, it can also take the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of MPAs by adopting innovative surveillance tools, such as drones, satellite-tracking systems for vessels, and passive acoustics systems which use sound to detect when a vessel is nearby, into its MPA management plans. How You Can Support MPAs What can one individual do in support of conserving our planet's vast marine ecosystems? Plenty, including taking the following actions: Sit on a MPA citizen advisory council. Provide input on your state's MPA proposals during public comment periods. Eat sustainable seafood; it guarantees no marine animals were harmed during the catching of your dinner. Use less plastics (straws, utensils, bags); as a result, less microplastics will end up in the ocean where they negatively impact the diet, growth, and reproduction of marine organisms. Take part in a beach cleanup; clearing away marine litter ensures creatures don't get trapped in, or eat trash. View Article Sources Hoffmann, Tegan Churcher. "The Reimplementation of the Ra'ui: Coral Reef Management in Rarotonga, Cook Islands." Coastal Management, vol. 30, no. 4, 2002, pp. 401-418., doi:10.1080/089207502900282 Humphreys, John, and Robert W.E. Clark. "A Critical History of Marine Protected Areas." Marine Protected Areas, 2020, pp. 1-12., doi:10.1016/b978-0-08-102698-4.00001-0 Wells, Sue et al. "Building the Future of MPAs - Lessons From History." Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, vol. 26, 2016, pp. 101-125., doi:10.1002/aqc.2680 Wenzel, Lauren et al. Marine Protected Areas 2020: Building Effective Conservation Networks. The National Marine Protected Areas Center, 2020. Cinner, Joshua E. et al. "Meeting Fisheries, Ecosystem Function, and Biodiversity Goals in a Human-Dominated World." Science, vol. 368, no. 6488, 2020, pp. 307-311., doi:10.1126/science.aax9412 "Global Marine Protection Agreements." Atlas Of Marine Protection. "The Marine Protection Atlas." Marine Conservation Institute. Turnbull, John W. et al. "Evaluating the Social and Ecological Effectiveness of Partially Protected Marine Areas." Conservation Biology, vol. 35, no. 3, 2021, pp. 921-932., doi:10.1111/cobi.13677 Sala, Enric, and Sylvaine Giakoumi. "No-Take Marine Reserves are the Most Effective Protected Areas in the Ocean." ICES Journal of Marine Science, vol. 75, no. 3, 2017, pp. 1166-1168., doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsx059 Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Revised Management Plan. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 2007, p. 92. Unmanaged = Unprotected: Europe’s Marine Paper Parks. Oceana, Brussels, 2020.