Marine Protected Areas


Protecting wildlife is a complicated, difficult task for any ecosystem. For marine wildlife, it is especially convoluted and full of unknowns. With terrestrial ecosystems, we humans have a decent chance to see a rough estimate of how many rhinos are in a savannah. Counting how many parrotfish are on a reef is exponentially more difficult, if your goal is to keep them alive, of course. You can’t exactly ask them all to come to the surface in an orderly fashion. Additionally, you cannot get them to stay put for long enough to know which you’ve already counted even under the water. Reefs are relatively small areas, but now imagine trying to figure out the population of long-range migratory species like tuna. The words “complicated” and “difficult” should make more sense now.

The world’s first National Park was established in 1872 to preserve the natural resources of the area. Now, there are national parks within nearly 100 countries spread around the globe. These parks are under the direct supervision of the governments of whichever country they are within. No other country can claim the resources protected within those boundaries. So, things again get trickier when it comes to marine resources. Since no one owns the oceans, a true tragedy of the commons has been playing out over centuries.

About three percent of the ocean is currently protected (shown in map below), but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just voted to increase that to 30% by 2030.


Marine protection comes in many shapes, sizes, and degrees of said protection. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are broadly defined by the IUCN as “Any area of the intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.” Protection of a marine area can be total, year-long bans on any human activity, but this is extremely rare. More often, the areas are designated “No Take” or “Multiple-use”. No Take Zones are designated areas where nothing can be taken out of the area, weather by fishing, souvenir trade, or even taking a pretty rock you see on the beach, but humans can still use the area for diving or snorkeling. Multiple-use areas employ two or more protections, usually a strict protection area surrounded by an area of lessor protections.

Protection of an area could be year-round, or only temporary. An MPA could be closed seasonally to protect a population’s spawning or nursing ground. It could also be protected “conditionally” to some event like temperature increase, nutrient runoff, or some other specific condition. MPAs can also vary in management strategies. Most MPAs around the world are managed and enforced by governments. However, an increasing number are being set up by communities, with enforcement, ticket sales, and infrastructure entirely handled by the community.

Frequently, these are set up by fishing communities who have recognized the value of designated protected areas. There is a sort of spillover effect outside of protected areas where more fish, or greater sizes are typically caught than in areas not associated with protected areas. The protection bolsters fish numbers and allows them to mature to a greater age and size than with no protection. These fish then migrate when population density increases, benefiting the areas outside of the protected areas in addition. Fishing communities then benefit from MPAs not only because of the direct ticket sales or ecotourism, but also from the protected fish themselves.

Although protecting marine wildlife is difficult, frustrating, and hard to quantify, we’re working hard to improve and expand MPAs for the benefit of everyone and everything involved. Protected areas are typically great areas to dive because of the very protection set in place. Just make sure to follow any rules or regulations set by the areas. Protection only works if everyone chips in!

‘Marine Protected Areas’ was written by Roya

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