Large-scale Marine Protected Areas
Marine spatial management has been a major international focus in recent years with an impetus on marine protected areas. Many large-scale MPAs cover thousands of kilometres of open ocean, and in some cases protect large swathes of empty water where there is little resource use.
An understanding of the international trends and drivers behind the establishment of large MPAs provides essential context for considering future proposals for their establishment and assessing the costs and benefits of alternative marine management approaches.
We identify major MPAs – established or proposed – each covering more than 100,000 square kilometres. Large MPAs are seldom established to achieve specific biodiversity protection objectives (although biodiversity protection may be a side-benefit) and tend to be opportunistic rather than carefully planned.
The establishment of large MPAs in the world’s oceans has little to do with domestic marine management priorities or policies – it is an escalating trend which has been driven by the misapplication of global numerical protection targets supported by the funding strategies of large international NGOs.
Some nations implement these ocean expanses in remotely owned waters to meet United Nations’ commitments to protect 10 percent of marine waters by 2020 with minimum impact on “mainland” economies. The attributes of these large-scale MPAs vary considerably in terms of area covered, level of protection provided, prohibitions on commercial fishing, approach to management (eg. zoning), and legal status. They can provide an option to avoid investment in effective fisheries management or to lay claim to remote or contested strategic oceanic assets.
Some key findings are:
- Thirty-eight individual large MPAs have been established and a further seven formally proposed (as at January 2018).
- The “top 10” established MPAs or MPA networks are each over or just under 1 million square kilometres.
- The “top five”established individual MPAs are (in descending size): Ross Sea Region MPA, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Hawaii), South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands MPA, the Coral Sea Marine Park, and Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve.
- Nearly 42% of the area covered by established MPAs and MPA networks is closed to commercial fishing. The five largest areas closed to commercial fishing are Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the Ross Sea Region MPA, Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area and Palau National Marine Sanctuary.
- The Pacific Ocean is overly represented in large MPAs – with 46% of the world’s ocean area, it is the location of 64% of the area of established MPAs and MPA networks and 74% of proposed MPAs. Nine of the top ten MPAs where commercial fishing is prohibited are located in the Pacific.
- Global numerical spatial targets are driving the establishment of ever-larger MPAs.
- Large MPAs are initiated and promoted by large international NGOs, seldom by governments.
- Large MPAs can serve the strategic military, territorial, and economic purposes of governing nations.
- Remote islands are frequently targeted as candidate sites for large MPAs. Distant northern hemisphere nations (eg. UK, US, France) are establishing large MPAs around their remote ocean territories and claiming these areas as their national contribution to global biodiversity protection while leaving their own coastlines available for utilisation.
- The Pacific Ocean remains vulnerable to the establishment of further MPAs by distant northern hemisphere nations and international NGOs, with negative implications for the sustainable management of the Pacific’s fisheries resources.
- Proponents of large MPAs are advocating benefits beyond biodiversity protection, including vaguely defined roles in ecosystem resilience, ecological connectivity, insurance against uncertainty, and adaptation to climate change.