The global assortment of terms and definitions for MPAs can be, in a word, confusing. A recent paper for the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas compiled a list of more than 50 terms used for various marine and coastal protected areas – from marine reserve and marine sanctuary, to marine park, marine refuge, marine monument, habitat management area, habitat protection zone, protected seascape, sensitive sea area,strict nature reserve, coastal preserve, etc. (“IUCN Categories: Their Application in Marine Protected Areas”, p. 9,

So many terms are used to denote MPAs that it can be puzzling even to experienced practitioners, not least when a term is used to mean different things in different jurisdictions. The term sanctuary, for example, is used in the UK to refer to a no-take area, whereas national marine sanctuaries in the US are multiple-use MPAs. There is also the persistent misunderstanding among stakeholders that the term marine protected area automatically means a no-take area; in fact, the vast majority of MPAs worldwide allow some extractive activity. Effects of such confusion can be felt both at the international level (as during attempts to measure global ocean protection) and at the site level, with community members unclear on the level of protection at their local MPA.

When MPA News first reported on nomenclature in 1999, the array of terms was expanding rapidly (MPA News 1:4). It has continued to grow, with countries adding new MPA labels and definitions each year. Is it a problem that policy makers keep devising new words for marine protected area? What can be done to improve public understanding of existing MPA labels? This month, MPA News talks with managers about why there are so many terms, and how the global MPA field can start making sense of them all.

Diversity of terms not necessarily problematic

There are more than 4500 MPAs around the globe, with many more being developed or proposed. Jon Day, director of conservation for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in Australia, notes that the goals and objectives for each site can vary enormously from place to place: each MPA is tailored to meet the specific circumstances of where and when it was established. Day says, “If a country chooses to use a name that is inconsistent with what other countries may consider more universally acceptable, that is its choice.”

He does not view that choice as necessarily being a problem. “The fundamental issue is not which name is more useful or legitimate than another,” says Day. “Rather, it is to ensure that effective marine conservation is occurring, recognizing that the drivers and expectations for marine conservation are very different worldwide.” In other words, he says, consistency in name between two sites is less important than the quality of conservation at each site.

Conservation quality, of course, is partly dependent on stakeholders’ understanding of regulations. If the official name of an MPA resonates with local stakeholders and helps convey the site’s goals, then it could reasonably be considered an adequate, useful name. If it does not, then it may be inadequate. Kathy Walls, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s South Pacific Program in Fiji, says concern over site names should be directed primarily at the local level: i.e., what a name means to local MPA stakeholders, not what it means in a broader (national or international) context.

“It is important that the communities within each jurisdiction understand what an MPA means to them,” says Walls. “This may require terminology that is specific to that jurisdiction, even though the term may not be recognized elsewhere.” In Fiji, for example, there are many tabu sites, recognized by Fijians as closed areas with a range of fisheries purposes: from traditional harvest areas to permanent or semi-permanent no-take zones. In this sense, suggests Walls, the dozens of terms now in use for MPAs – as well as future terms yet devised – may be appropriate as long as those terms hold meaning for their respective stakeholder communities.

Walls was formerly the senior technical support officer for marine protected areas with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, and participated in creation of New Zealand’s national MPA Policy and Implementation Plan, released in January 2006 ( That policy coined its own unique definition for MPA, similar to but not the same as dozens of other definitions in use globally (the definition was worded, in part, to reflect New Zealand’s biodiversity strategy). It was the first time the nation had officially defined the term, and it enabled national-level officials to harmonize a variety of site-level management measures.

“In New Zealand, different types of MPAs have been established for different purposes, in many situations, under different legislation, over many years,” says Walls, citing marine reserves, fisheries closures, wildlife refuges, national parks, and other designations. “Until the MPA Policy, these areas were not given a generic definition of MPA. The MPA Policy has sought to coordinate the different types of MPAs and include them in plans for a nationwide network of MPAs. What is important is that the network contains sufficient areas and adequately protects the full range of New Zealand’s marine habitats and ecosystems.”

Categorizing MPAs

New Zealand still manages MPAs with a dozen different designation labels. But the MPA Policy applied order to this system by bringing each site under the umbrella term of marine protected area. While the sites retained their original names, the classification of each as a marine protected area under the policy helped draw links between them, illustrating their shared conservation goals.

That is the essence of categorization – what proponents would like to see done for the MPA field worldwide. In the global case, it would not be accomplished with a single catch-all term (marine protected area). Rather, it could be done with tiered categories that would quickly communicate the level of resource protection at each site. Each MPA would retain its original given name, but its category would express its conservation goals. Two sites with very different names but similar protection levels would have the same category – whether they were located in the same country or across the world from each other.

Such a system already exists: the IUCN Protected Area Management Category System. Unfortunately, as currently designed, it has not worked well for MPAs. Featuring six categories, the IUCN system ranges from what it terms Strict Nature Reserve (Category IA – “Managed mainly for science”) toManaged Resource Protected Area (Category VI – “Managed mainly for the sustainable use of natural ecosystems”). The system is described online at The concept is that governmental agencies around the world register their MPAs, including the relevant IUCN category, in a global database. Those assigned categories then ensure that comparisons between protected areas are valid, and also help to assess trends in global protection.

Problems with the system are best viewed through research by Louisa Wood at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Wood manages the MPA Global database (, which was developed from information in the World Database on Protected Areas operated by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Over the course of many years, agencies have entered protected area information into the latter database. In her analysis of the resulting figures, Wood has found little correlation between actual protection levels of MPAs and their IUCN categories. A substantial proportion of MPAs listed under each IUCN category, for example, have no strict protection – despite the fact that several of the categories require such protection.

Various factors may contribute to this. The official titles assigned by IUCN to the categories – such as “National Park” for Category II or “Natural Monument” for Category III – bear no clear relationship to their categories’ actual objectives, and are terms that can carry different statutory meanings in different countries. Some users scan these titles rather than the objectives, and mis-assign their MPAs as a result. In addition, the system does not allow for multiple categories for a single site, such as when an MPA has no-take zones within a larger multi-use framework. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is assigned to Category VI (“Managed mainly for the sustainable use of natural ecosystems”) despite its network of no-take zones totaling 115,000 km2, or one-third of the entire MPA. Another problem, says Wood, is that in cases where three-quarters or more of a protected area consists of land, marine objectives are rarely considered when assigning the site’s category. All of these factors contribute to a substantial amount of uncertainty over the quality of the data, she says.

IUCN is in the process of reviewing and revising its category system, including at a summit meeting this month in Almeria, Spain ( that MPA News will recap in next month’s edition. IUCN’s goal is to finalize a set of revisions for the category system in 2008. As part of the process, an effort is underway to ensure greater recognition of specific challenges presented by the marine environment within the category system. A detailed consideration of the marine issues to be addressed is provided at

“Rosetta Stone of MPA terminology”

In the US, the National Marine Protected Areas Center has developed its own MPA classification system, released in December 2006. Charlie Wahle, director of the Center’s Science Institute, says the system was created to provide a straightforward and objective way to describe MPAs in purely functional terms. “Think of it as the Rosetta Stone of MPA terminology, providing a common language for place-based conservation in the ocean,” says Wahle.

The US system ( is based on five objective characteristics common to most MPAs:

  • Conservation Focus – Whether the site’s purpose is natural heritage protection, cultural heritage protection, sustainable production, or a combination of these;
  • Level of Protection – Whether the site is multiple-use (i.e., uniform uses across the site, zoned uses, or zoned uses with no-take zones) or more restrictive (i.e., no take, no access, or no impact);
  • Permanence of Protection – Whether protection is permanent, conditional, or temporary;
  • Constancy of Protection – Whether protection is year-round, seasonal, or rotational; and
  • Ecological Scale of Protection – Whether protection is ecosystem-wide or focused on a particular resource (habitat/species/cultural resource).

Although the system combines features of several US and international MPA classification schemes, it adds a visual element. Simple cartoon icons express variables for the characteristics of “Conservation Focus” and “Level of Protection”, which the National MPA Center considers the two central organizing themes for the US national MPA system. The icon for an MPA with a focus on natural heritage, for example, features a scene with a seabird, fish, and seagrass. “The icons were designed to tell the main story of any MPA in an intuitive and consistent way,” says Wahle. The National MPA Center is now working to incorporate the icons into navigation products, posters, brochures, and other media.

Wahle believes the system, which can be applied to a single MPA site or to individual management zones within an MPA, represents an important step forward. “The problem is not that there are so many different MPA names in use,” he says. “It is that the nation needs a tool to understand what they mean.”

For more information:

Jon Day, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, P.O. Box 1379, Townsville, QLD 4810, Australia. Tel: +61 7 4750 0803; E-mail:

Kathy Walls, WCS South Pacific Program, 11 Ma’afu St, Suva, Fiji Islands. Tel: +679 331 5174; E-mail:

Louisa Wood, Fisheries Centre, 2259 Lower Mall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Tel: +1 604 822 1636; E-mail:

Charlie Wahle, MPA Science Institute, NOAA National Marine Protected Areas Center, Monterey, CA, USA. Tel: +1 831 242 2052; E-mail: