Editor’s note: The following essay offers lessons from a learning workshop on marine conservation agreements presented in October at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain. John Claussen is director of the Conservation and Community Investment Forum. Eduard Niesten is director of the Conservation Economics Program for Conservation International (CI). Dick Rice is chief economist for CI. Jay Udelhoven is senior policy advisor for the Global Marine Team of The Nature Conservancy. Patricia Zurita is senior director of the Conservation Stewards Program for CI.

By John Claussen, Eduard Niesten, Dick Rice, Jay Udelhoven, and Patricia Zurita

Over the past several years, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have realized that the creation of formal protected areas may not be sufficient to protect ocean and coastal biodiversity, particularly in areas where rights have already been granted to specific owners and users. To address this, NGOs are increasingly using Marine Conservation Agreements (MCAs). This approach includes any formal or informal understanding between two or more parties in which the parties obligate themselves, for an exchange of benefits, to take certain actions, refrain from certain actions, or transfer certain rights and responsibilities to achieve agreed-upon ocean or coastal conservation goals. MCAs can be entered into by governments, communities, private entities, and private individuals.

Common examples of MCAs include leases, licenses, easements, management agreements, purchase and sale agreements, concessions, and contracts. NGOs have used MCAs to help manage specific areas, harvesting methods, and access to resources. These efforts have protected important marine biodiversity while positioning NGOs as vested and solution-oriented stakeholders with governments and communities responsible for decision-making.

Private, for-profit entities routinely enter into agreements and acquire rights to marine areas and resources for a wide range of purposes such as marinas, utility lines, gravel mining, aquaculture, and oil extraction. Also, in many parts of the world, marine tenure systems are such that communities and fishing cooperatives have rights to marine areas. NGOs are now using these private models in collaboration with local communities and governments for purposes that improve and protect the marine environment, while generating concrete benefits for many local communities.

Marine Conservation Agreement goals

MCAs can be used to: 1) protect important places where other strategies such as marine protected areas may not be applicable or are difficult to establish; 2) serve as one strategy within integrated networks of marine protection that include MPAs and area-wide laws; and 3) position NGOs as stakeholders with decision-makers who are considering actions that will impact marine areas.

MCAs can be used to complement and augment the number and effectiveness of formal MPAs. MCAs are based on agreed-upon terms and conditions, are often bottom-up approaches, and include quid pro quo incentives wherein all parties receive benefits. MCAs can be catalysts for the formal establishment of government MPAs or functionally serve to protect areas similar to MPAs. Lastly, MCAs can provide a mechanism for local stakeholder involvement in collaborative management of MPAs.

Projects and lessons learned

There are numerous existing MCA projects throughout the globe. One of the best-known is the Chumbe Island Coral Park in Tanzania. Other examples include The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) 13,000-acre Great South Bay project on Long Island, New York (U.S.), and the 400,000-km2 Phoenix Island Protected Area in Kiribati that was established in part based on a “reverse fishing license” – an agreement being developed by the Government of Kiribati, Conservation International (CI), and the New England Aquarium. Details about these and other projects can be found online at www.leaseown.org/Case_Studies/Case_Studies.html.

The existing projects have provided insight for the successful application of MCAs, including:

  1. Fish protection – While MCAs can be used to protect numerous features of the ocean and coastal environment, most projects directly or indirectly protect finfish, shellfish, or their habitats.
  2. Diversity – MCAs are currently being used by diverse organizations, under diverse circumstances, and in diverse geographies.
  3. Local integration – Many existing projects that show significant signs of success involve the direct participation of local communities and provide opportunities for local employment.
  4. Varying scales – MCAs can be applied at small scales (less than five hectares) and extremely large scales (up to 400,000 km2).
  5. Project champions – Many MCA projects came to fruition due to the perseverance, persuasive abilities, and personal relationships of forward-thinking, bold, and charismatic project leaders. Successful project leaders have accounted for the cultural, social, political, and economic issues of the local communities.

Current limitations and strategic next steps

Although the potential application of MCAs is broad and significant, the strategy is currently underutilized. This is due in part to the fact that MCA practitioners do not generally communicate with each other for information exchange or collaboration. As a result, MCAs remain insufficiently understood and applied by the marine conservation community. To reverse this, TNC and partners are working to: 1) capture new information from existing projects; 2) harmonize processes to promote a uniform approach to MCAs; 3) reach out through global forums to create greater inclusion of MCAs in planning and funding processes; and 4) implement collaborative demonstration projects that will be used to catalyze increasing use of MCAs to protect the world’s oceans and coasts.


Two recent workshops have addressed MCAs. Information can be found at: www.leaseown.org/Resources/PMCA_Workshop.html and www.leaseown.org/Resources/WCC_LearningEvent.html.

For more information:

John D. Claussen, Conservation and Community Investment Forum, Indonesia. E-mail: john@starlingresources.com

Eduard Niesten, Conservation International, U.S. E-mail: e.niesten@conservation.org

Dick Rice, Conservation International, U.S. E-mail: d.rice@conservation.org

Jay Udelhoven, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. E-mail: judelhoven@tnc.org

Patricia Zurita, Conservation International, U.S. E-mail: p.zurita@conservation.org