Marine protected areas – effective conservation measures or glorified virtue signalling?

Written by Mazz Cummings

In 2016, members of the  International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called for 30% of the worlds oceans to be protected by 2030, with a target of 10% set by the United Nations (UN) to be achieved by 2020. 8 years later, and with only 6 years to go before the 2030 deadline, only 7.7% of world oceans are under Marine Protected Area (MPA) designation, woefully behind the 2020 deadline, and a serious risk that the 2030 target will also be missed. There have been several challenges in the establishment and implementation of MPAs, largely due to lack of resources and political barriers. In 2023, a landmark agreement was made by the UN facilitating the protection of the high seas, water bodies that lie outside of national boundaries, which cover two thirds of the worlds oceans. The establishment of MPAs was intended to protect marine wildlife and environment, as well as fish stocks vital for food security. However, not only has progress so far been slow, it is also unclear as to whether MPAs are actually having overall positive impacts.

Marine Protected Area: A spatially and temporally defined space managed for conservation of habitat and wildlife, for the benefit of ecosystem processes and services as well as cultural values. MPAs vary in their levels of protection, with some not allowing any human entry, and others permitting fishing and bottom trawling. Some MPAs are effective year round whilst others are effective on a seasonal or temporary basis.

Parrotfish, one of the species included within the study. Image by Jeremy Wilder from Pixabay

There is a great deal of variation in different MPAs in terms of geographic space, level of protection, types of activity permitted, and temporal variability. There is also a great deal of variety in the enforcement of MPA restrictions and management, resulting in the positive benefits of some MPAs being undermined by poor enforcement in other areas. Policy makers have been accused of targeting ‘low hanging fruit’ when establishing MPAs, sometimes designating MPA status to bodies of water which already experience little to no human interference in order to appear to be making progress, tantamount to virtue signalling. There are also serious concerns that, rather than pressures being alleviated by establishing MPAs, pressures are merely re-distributed to areas outside of protection, which could have compounding effects, both in unprotected areas, as well as in nearby protected zones.

In a recent paper, Steven Canty and his team analysed the impact of MPAs in the Mesoamerican reef (MAR) region, covering the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. The investigation analysed the different responses in adult and juvenile fish to both human and environmental stressors. At first glance, it appeared that fish stocks had been stable between the study period of 2006 to 2018. On further investigation, the apparent stability of overall fish biomass was masking changes to the fish population dynamics and life stage structure, with positive effects of MPAs in some regions being undermined by the lack of enforcement of MPA regulations in others. Further to the impact of poor MPA enforcement, the impact of global warming degrading reef habitat threatens the success of fish reproduction, further highlighting the compounding pressures faced by marine wildlife. They found that connectivity between MPAs as well as adequate enforcement was key to the success of protected areas. This is vital to protecting the natural environments, wildlife, and ecosystem services within these ocean spaces. Success in protected areas is also likely to have wider benefits to unprotected areas as it will help to support migrating fish species, as well as protecting coastal communities that rely on a healthy, thriving marine ecosystem.

Commercial Fishing Vessel. Image by Kees Kortmulder from Pixabay
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