Global targets for the percentage of oceans to be protected serve two general purposes: as a goal for MPA efforts to pursue, and as a measure of those efforts’ progress. Unfortunately, over the past decade, some of the high-profile targets for MPAs have proven too difficult to reach, at least in the near term.

Take, for example, the target set in 2005 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): that 10% of all marine and coastal ecological regions should be conserved in representative MPAs by 2012. Within months of the target being set, a study determined that at the current rate of global MPA designation, the 10% goal would not be met for several decades to come (MPA News 7:5). When global MPA coverage still remained well below 2% in 2010, the CBD Secretariat extended the deadline to 2020 (MPA News 12:3).

Meeting that new deadline may still be no easy feat, however. Look at the calculations:

  • The total global ocean area is 330 million km2, so 10% of the global oceans is 33 million km2.
  • Current global MPA coverage is roughly 5.3 million km2, which means we are at about 1.6% coverage.
  • The median size of MPAs worldwide (meaning half of MPAs are larger than this, and half are smaller) is less than 2 km2, according to the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. For perspective: it would take the equivalent of 20 million median-sized MPAs to reach the 10% coverage target.
  • What may be considered the largest protected area in the world – the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area, designated in February 2012 by the UK – is roughly 1 million km2. For perspective: even at that enormous size, it would take the equivalent of 33 of these to reach the 10% coverage target.

The figures and the challenge ahead are daunting. There is also the question of how all the forthcoming protected areas will be financed, in light of already persistent shortfalls in funding for existing sites. And the question of the level of protection within the MPAs-to-come must be considered, too. Below we examine various points of view on how the 10% target can be reached.

Designate very large MPAs for rapid gains in coverage

Located in the southern Atlantic Ocean is the remote and nearly uninhabited UK territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. In February when the Commissioner of the islands designated a 1 million-km2 MPA across most of the islands’ EEZ, the accompanying management plan trumpeted the impact on global MPA coverage. “[The new protected area] increases the area of the world’s oceans formally protected as MPAs by almost [one-quarter],” the plan said – that is, from about 4.3 million km2 to 5.3 million km2. The new MPA is equal in size to the land area of Norway, Sweden, and Finland combined. (The management plan is available at

One very large MPA can produce substantial and rapid progress toward MPA coverage targets, particularly for national waters. Over the course of two years, for example, the UK has covered about 20% of its EEZ with just two marine protected areas – the South Georgia MPA and, in 2010, the 544,000-km2 Chagos Marine Protected Area in the Indian Ocean. (Unlike Chagos, which is at the center of a dispute with displaced indigenous inhabitants over their right of return to the British Indian Ocean Territory, there is no indigenous population from South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. However, the islands are claimed by Argentina as part of the same geographic dispute that pertains to the Falkland Islands [or Islas Malvinas, to Argentina].)

The South Georgia MPA, which covers the portion of the islands’ EEZ that is north of 60°S latitude, mainly codifies existing fishery measures. That is, commercial bottom trawling there – which was off-limits prior to designation – remains off-limits in the MPA, as does longlining at depths shallower than 700 m. Other fishing will continue to be licensed, at least for the time being.

Despite the before-after similarity, the MPA represents a “major change of approach” in management and a significant step forward for conservation, says Phil Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey, who advised the South Georgia government in planning the MPA. “What were previously fishery licence agreements and conditions that could be changed without recourse to law can now only be modified through legislation,” he says. “In addition, the new MPA stipulates that fishing vessels now are not allowed within 12 nm from the islands except under force majeure or with a permit, which represents a tightening of protection.” The MPA also features a new system of zones, designated according to various IUCN protection categories. Trathan expects management provisions for the MPA to grow increasingly restrictive over time. (Incidentally, since the 1990s, the South Georgia government has issued no fishing licenses in the EEZ below 60°S, making that area a de facto no-take zone.)

The UK is not alone in designating large MPAs. In recent years, there has been a surge in new MPAs larger than 150,000 km2 – to the point where such sites now account for over half of total MPA coverage worldwide (MPA News 13:2). And more are on the way. Australia has proposed the 322,000-km2 South-west Corner Commonwealth Marine Reserve and the 989,842-km2 Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve in its waters, while the Cook Islands is expected to designate a 1 million-km2 MPA in 2012. In the meantime, work is underway to apply large MPAs to the high seas as well. A new alliance of NGOs is pressing international authorities to designate a 3.6 million-km2 no-take area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea (see Notes & News, this issue), and Bermuda is pursuing the designation of what could become a 5 million-km2 MPA in international waters of the Sargasso Sea ( A few million km2 here, a few million there, and soon the MPA field may be close to the 33 million-km2 goal.

Local MPAs can be the most cost-effective option

An irony often encountered in MPA planning is that it can be simpler and faster to designate a very large MPA than a single small one. This is particularly the case when the large MPA is in a remote, unpopulated location and the small MPA is in coastal waters near a population center. In remote locations, there are typically few stakeholders to contest the designation, whereas in coastal locations the planning process and negotiations can take years.

However, according to Enric Sala, it is the small coastal MPAs – and particularly coastal no-take marine reserves – that offer the most cost-effective and sustainable way forward for building a worldwide system of MPAs. Sala, a marine ecologist and explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society, says the benefits that marine reserves can produce (in terms of increased tourism and increased fisheries catches) can outweigh the management costs of the reserves themselves. And in light of the fact the CBD 10% target will require a fivefold increase in MPA coverage in just the next eight years, some consideration of cost-effectiveness is in order, he says.

“Well-enforced no-take marine reserves universally increase diversity, size, abundance, and biomass of fish inside their boundaries, which makes them very attractive to tourism,” says Sala. “Also, marine reserves typically produce spillover that benefits local fisheries.” In contrast, a recent study by Sala and colleagues ( found that MPAs that allowed some fishing often did not lead to increases in fish relative to unprotected areas nearby. As a result of their lower biomass and diversity, the tourism value of these partially protected MPAs was also lower, as was the likelihood of local fisheries enhancement.

In this light, Sala refers to no-take marine reserves as fish banks. “Using the bank analogy: the larger your principal is, the more interest you earn on it,” he says. A well-enforced marine reserve has a larger principal (i.e., fish abundance) than a partially protected site does, so its interest (societal and ecological benefits) is greater as well. He cites the small Medes Islands Marine Reserve in Spain as an example, where the cost of management is equal to just a small fraction (5%) of its revenue value to the local community. (MPA News recognizes that no-take marine reserves often represent a cost to fishing communities and their establishment is not necessarily offset by external benefits to fisheries.)

“Instead of perceiving MPAs as a sacrifice and a sink of resources, we should be planning them so that they can pay for themselves,” says Sala. “We need to empower local communities to create and manage their own reserves with a business approach. Only then will we be able to scale up and create the large number of new small marine reserves that will be necessary to help meet the global MPA targets.”

Consultant Andreas Merkl, who has studied global MPA funding, agrees that reaching the 10% MPA target by 2020 will require what amount to self-sustainable sites. The conventional ways of funding MPAs through top-down support from governments and NGOs will be inadequate, he says.

“Increasing MPA coverage by five times in such a short span of time would drain the pool of conventional funding,” says Merkl. “However, if it could be done in a way that restores stocks, increases local fishery yields, and thus can rely on most of the work being done by local people who benefit directly, it could be feasible.”

This represents a shift in thinking for Merkl. In 2003 he suggested that, contrary to common belief in the MPA field, there was a considerable pool of potential capital available for MPA management from conventional sources (MPA News 5:5). The real problem, he said, was that this capital was unlikely to be committed unless the capacity for good management was greatly improved.

Merkl still views management capacity as a challenge for MPAs. But he sees promise in the emerging science and economics around pairing territorial use right agreements with no-take areas (as done in Fiji, Palau, and Papua New Guinea, for example) as a promising, long-term financing option. “Under these arrangements, locals are granted the right to restrict access to a fishery, which reduces the loss of fishery revenue to outsiders,” he says. “When local stewards get to keep the rewards of their good stewardship, everything changes.”

Are MPA coverage targets a distraction?

Not every MPA is self-sustaining when it comes to funding – far from it. The great majority of site managers remain dependent on conventional sources. In many cases worldwide, these sources of funding are dwindling as governments try to balance budgets in lean economic times. Yet this has not necessarily stopped decision-makers from designating large MPAs in an effort to meet MPA coverage targets.

John Beumer, who oversees the declared Fish Habitat Areas program for Fisheries Queensland, says the 10% target provides an incentive for decisions that are economically inefficient. In a time of limited budgets, he says, the most efficient expenditure of resources may be to focus where ecosystem threats are greatest – typically at the interface between coastal development and estuaries or inshore waters – rather than on large, remote, relatively undisturbed areas.

As a case in point, he cites the current effort to plan a 1 million-km2 MPA in Australian waters of the Coral Sea (MPA News 13:4). Although the area experiences relatively low human activity compared to waters nearer to shore, an MPA there would still incur significant management costs for monitoring and enforcement, in part due to its remoteness. “The Coral Sea process is a prime example of what we Australians call ‘vegemiting’ our budgetary resources: that is, spreading them much too thinly,” says Beumer. (His comments represent his personal opinion rather than an official response.)

Beumer says the increased attention being paid to protection in general in policymaking is not being matched with corresponding increases in budgets. “This leads to heightened perceptions of additional bureaucracy without any real management involvement, and without real benefit to the status of those marine habitats now having what is seen as a ‘token’ protection,” he says. “At the same time, it detracts from many existing ‘true’ MPAs that are under real threat, but which have inadequate resources for proper management.”

Mark Spalding of The Nature Conservancy, who co-led the assessment in 2010 of global MPA coverage for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, agrees the targets can be a distraction. “We really need to start focusing on where we are putting MPAs, not just on how much we are setting aside,” he says. “I think this was also the intent of the CBD 10% target, which was written as part of a much broader framework of goals aimed at reducing threats and improving conditions worldwide. Well, you can only do a little of that in a remote location where threats are low and conditions good. To really crack it, you have to take the solution directly to the problem. We really need MPAs in places where marine biodiversity is struggling. Those sites are generally going to be small, expensive, and hard to manage.”

It is one thing, says Spalding, to achieve 10% MPA coverage in undisturbed areas. “But I wonder when we will get to 10% coverage of threatened and degraded areas,” he says. “These are the places where MPAs may be able to turn around losses of biodiversity and improve livelihoods.”

For more information:

Phil Trathan, British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, UK. E-mail:

Enric Sala, National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, US. E-mail:

Andreas Merkl, California Environmental Associates, San Francisco, California, US. E-mail:

John Beumer, Fisheries Queensland, Department of Employment, Economic Development, and Innovation (DEEDI), Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. E-mail:

Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy, Cambridge, UK. E-mail:

BOX: A selection of MPA targets

2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development

Target: to establish representative networks of marine protected areas worldwide by 2012

UN Convention on Biological Diversity

Target: to conserve 10% of all marine and coastal ecological regions in MPAs by 2020

Micronesia Challenge

Target: to conserve at least 30% of nearshore marine waters across Micronesia by 2020

BOX: How the high seas dilute global MPA coverage calculations

Most of the world ocean – nearly two-thirds of it – consists of waters beyond national jurisdiction: the high seas. Very few MPAs have been designated on the high seas, due in part to the lack of established frameworks for designating broadly recognzed MPAs there. Because the high seas are so vast and so devoid of MPAs, they have the effect of diluting the impact on global MPA calculations of new MPAs in national waters. So despite the remarkable designation in February of the 1 million-km2 South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands MPA in UK waters, it amounted to an increase in coverage of just one-third of one percent of the world ocean.

“We need to look at two parallel trends,” says Mark Spalding of The Nature Conservancy, who tracks global MPA coverage. “Within national waters worldwide, I think we’ll reach the 10% coverage target by 2020, easily. We are already at greater than 4% coverage inside EEZs and it is becoming ever easier for nations to make the mega-declarations of remote places that really shift the statistics.

“On the other hand, MPA coverage on the high seas remains well under 1%,” he continues. “Unless we can come up with a robust means for establishing MPAs on the true high seas then effort will remain focused on the EEZs. And unless we get high seas MPAs at scale, we are going to need to get 25% MPA coverage in national waters to meet the 10% target for oceans overall.”

BOX: Shortcut to meeting the 10% target: Reconsidering what counts as an MPA

Sometimes what counts as a marine protected area is in the eye of the beholder. When MPA News polled readers in 2006 on what should be considered the world’s largest MPA, for example, your responses were literally all over the map: large marine parks, various fisheries gear closures, the Indian Ocean whale sanctuary. One respondent suggested the Southern Ocean should be considered an MPA, as it is under active management by the intergovernmental Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

This is relevant to MPA coverage targets. The CCAMLR area, for example, is 35 million km2. If it were included in the UN assessment of global MPA coverage, the 10% worldwide target (equivalent to 33 million km2) would immediately be surpassed. Clearly, definitions play a key role in gauging global MPA coverage.

This raises several questions. Should single-species fishery closures (such as EEZ-wide shark sanctuaries) be included in the global coverage calculation? Should gear closures be included, like the 4.5 million km2 of purse seine closures designated by Parties to the Nauru Agreement (MPA News 12:5)? What do you think?

BOX: Madagascar study: How various planning methods could be used to achieve MPA coverage targets

The Government of Madagascar has announced its intent to increase its MPA coverage by 1 million hectares (10,000 km2). To help inform this process, a new study compares various methods for marine spatial planning along Madagascar’s west coast. With the goal of developing a “diversified portfolio” of management options for the study area (including no-take areas and managed fishing zones), the methods apply a range of MPA coverage targets – as high as 30%, as low as 16%.

Conducted by an international team of researchers, the study provides a model of how MPA coverage targets could be achieved in the context of a broader marine spatial planning process. “Comparison of Marine Spatial Planning Methods in Madagascar Demonstrates Value of Alternative Approaches” appears in the journal PLoS ONE at