The World Heritage Convention, adopted in 1972 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to protect the world’s most important cultural and natural heritage. In designating more than 700 locales as World Heritage sites – from Vatican City to the Taj Mahal to the Great Barrier Reef – the 177 state parties to the convention have indicated their desire to see these places preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Although the designation of World Heritage provides a potentially valuable mechanism for conserving marine ecosystems, such potential has remained relatively untapped. Of the World Heritage sites listed to date, fewer than 7% of them (56 sites) target coastal or marine features, and fewer than 10 of these are primarily marine. An initiative is now underway to expand the application of World Heritage across a range of ocean ecosystems, in part by demonstrating the special strengths of this legal instrument. MPA News examines the usefulness of World Heritage for MPAs and the strategy for building the mechanism’s profile in the global MPA field.

Benefits of World Heritage status

To be awarded World Heritage status, a site is first nominated by its national government (state party), which must demonstrate the “outstanding universal value” of the site among other qualifications. A multinational committee compares the nominee to sites of similar type and decides whether it is unique and significant enough to merit designation. Providing proof of outstanding universal value is not always easy for marine sites: the relative lack of knowledge about marine ecosystems – compared to natural sites on land and cultural sites – can make conclusive comparative studies more of a challenge, though not impossible.

Designation as a World Heritage site brings benefits. By virtue of the nomination process, which requires that management plans be set for nominees, designated sites enjoy the advantage of having a management strategy approved by international experts and ready for immediate implementation. Marjaana Kokkonen, a natural heritage specialist at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris, says the nomination process is an important mechanism for ensuring strong site management. “Striving for World Heritage status often prompts the nominating country to improve conservation of the site,” thus setting a higher conservation baseline, says Kokkonen.

The prestige associated with having a World Heritage site provides an incentive for national governments to ensure their sites do not become degraded. However, should threats to a site’s heritage values begin to overwhelm management, the site can be placed on the “World Heritage in Danger” list, which often helps to attract international and national support for conservation of the site. “The list should not be seen as punishment,” says Kokkonen, although it has been used as a way to encourage governments to take action against threats that are under their control. Some countries facing threats beyond their control have actually requested danger listings for their own sites to raise awareness on the need for conservation action and international support.

Meriwether Wilson, a World Heritage consultant on marine issues and commission member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), says that because the World Heritage Convention is international in scope and legal stature, it offers a useful instrument through which countries can explore innovative approaches to MPA design and management. Take transboundary MPAs as an example, she says. Creating MPAs across national boundaries makes sense in light of the connectivity, multi-scale, and multi-site aspects of many marine community functions, like migration and larval dispersal. The World Heritage Convention encourages nomination of transboundary and serial (or multi-site) protected areas, offering a way for countries to approach cooperative management. “The dynamic nature of the marine environment lends itself particularly well to this kind of approach,” says Wilson.

Building a strategy; more marine sites

Kokkonen and Wilson are working with Annie Hillary of the IUCN WCPA-Marine program to build a global network of marine World Heritage sites, as well as enhance UNESCO’s marine conservation capacity and foster synergies across related conventions, like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Their aim is to strengthen the World Heritage Marine Program over five years, including the establishment of new “pilot” marine World Heritage sites spanning a range of scales, environments, and socio-economic complexity. Three transboundary pilot sites are already underway, in the Central Pacific, the southeastern Caribbean, and the eastern tropical Pacific.

In early 2002, experts gathered in Hanoi, Viet Nam, to develop a list of coastal, marine, and small island ecosystems in tropical nations for potential nomination as World Heritage sites (MPA News 4:11). The workshop was convened by the World Heritage Centre in collaboration with IUCN and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the proceedings are available at A draft strategy for the World Heritage Marine Program calls for a similar workshop to be held to focus on potential nominees from temperate and polar regions.

Other goals of the World Heritage Marine Program include: (a) building a marine site managers network to share experience, training, and mentoring across World Heritage sites; (b) developing a user-friendly guide to World Heritage processes, including guidance for transboundary nominations; (c) conducting preliminary effectiveness assessments of existing marine sites on issues such as tourism, fisheries, coastal development, and science; and (d) identifying joint funding and partnership opportunities.

For more information:

Marjaana Kokkonen, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 7 place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France. Tel: +33 1 4568 1887; E-mail:

Annie Hillary, International Programs Office, National Ocean Service, NOAA, 1315 East-West Highway N/IP, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA. Tel: +1 301 713 3078 x221; E-mail:

Meriwether Wilson, c/o University of Edinburgh, School of GeoSciences, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH93JW Scotland, UK. Tel: +44 131 650 8636; E-mail:

World Heritage Convention