MPAs – What are they and how are they accomplished?

By Andi Driessner, a former Last Ocean intern in the US. Andi recently graduated from Metro State College in Denver with a BS in Biology, focusing on ecology and conservation. She’s doing research in the Colorado mountains this summer with plans to continue her work on environmental issues and finding ways to protect our natural ecosystems. 

Marine areas are in desperate need of protection. The demand for fishing is increasing, causing species declines. The global human population is on the rise, with our excessive pollution causing harmful algal blooms and dead zones (areas with oxygen levels so low that native organisms cannot survive). Up to 70% of coral reefs are threatened or destroyed (20% beyond repair) and surface waters are becoming more acidic due to rising carbon dioxide levels.

Coral reef in an MPA in Raja Ampat, Indonesia (photo credit: Elsie Tanadjaja)

Marine protected areas, or MPAs, allow marine life to thrive without interference.  Research has shown that overharvested fish will return.  Habitats, once scoured by trawls or other fishing gear, will recover.  Still undisturbed areas, like the Ross Sea, can be protected from future harm.

An MPA has many definitions. According to the Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 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 culture values.” MPAs can range from open ocean, to coastal areas, inter-tidal zones and estuaries

School of Barracudas in an MPA in Raja Ampat, Indonesia (photo credit: Elsie Tanadjaja)

No-take marine reserves, where fishing or collection of any type is strictly forbidden, are especially effective. Yet few MPAs are no-take marine reserves, instead most are open to fishing, diving, boating, and other business and recreational uses. It can be confusing but the general rule is that all marine reserves are MPAs but not all MPAs are no-take marine reserves. A network of MPAs can be especially powerful at protecting ecosystems and animals that migrate long distances.

Currently less than 1% of the world’s oceans are protected, with 0.2% being no-take reserves. Yet, the IUCN recommends protecting at least 20-30% of the world’s marine habitats. And in 2002, there was international consensus (generated by that year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development) to set up networks of MPAs across the world’s oceans by 2012.

Global map of MPAs (graphic by The Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre)

We have a long way to go to reach that goal. But many countries have made strides in protecting their waters. The United States currently has 13 national marine sanctuaries and many more fishery management zones. Australia is currently developing a national system of marine protected areas, with more than 78 so far. Canada has identified more than a dozen areas of interest for protection. South Africa and Mozambique have announced four new MPAs that will encompass protection of coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries and hundreds of species of fish. New Zealand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, and other countries, have also established their own MPA systems.

Setting up MPAs in high-seas areas (international waters which technically belong to everyone) can be especially tricky. The Southern Ocean, which is functionally a high-seas area, is managed by CCAMLR (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). For the last few years, CCAMLR has talked about setting up MPAs in the Antarctic. In 2009, they established the first high-seas MPA in the Southern Ocean, just south of the South Orkneys. As they work towards the 2012 goal of having a network of MPAs, many organizations, including the Last Ocean, are pushing hard for a Ross Sea no-take marine reserve.

Seastars and seal in an underwater cave, Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo credit: John B. Weller)

The Ross Sea has been named the “Last Ocean” because it is the last large open ocean ecosystem that has not been damaged by humans. Its remoteness and heavy ice cover have largely protected it from widespread pollution, invasive species and overfishing. As such, the Ross Sea is the most pristine marine ecosystem left on the planet. While only comprising a small fraction of the Southern Ocean (3.2%), the Ross Sea is its most productive stretch of water.  Disproportionate populations of penguins, fish, mammals and invertebrates make their home here, including many species found nowhere else on Earth. The Ross Sea is a living laboratory and provides scientists a last chance to understand what a healthy marine ecosystem looks like.

To help support a Ross Sea MPA, check out to find out more. Sign our petition to let CCAMLR hear your voice!