At the World Conservation Congress last month, IUCN presented its new official definition for the term “protected area” (MPA News 10:4):

“A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”

Refined over several years of negotiations, the definition is intended to apply to all types of protected areas: terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and marine. Explanations of each of the definition’s component terms and phrases are provided in IUCN’s report Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. The report – available at – also explains IUCN’s six newly revised categories for protected areas, ranging from “Strict Nature Reserve” to “Protected Area with Sustainable Use of Natural Resources”.

Of interest to MPA practitioners is that IUCN expects the new protected area definition to supersede its previous definition for “marine protected area”, used since 1999 (“Any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment). This month, MPA News asks two experts who helped draft the guidelines what the new definition and, more broadly, the revised management categories could mean for MPA practitioners:

  • Nigel Dudley, editor of the guidelines report and managing partner of Equilibrium Research in the UK; and
  • Dan Laffoley, marine vice chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA).

MPA News: Is the previous IUCN definition for “marine protected area” now defunct?

Dudley: There was a clear recommendation from WCPA marine members that MPAs should be more closely aligned with terrestrial and freshwater protected areas and that a definition should reflect the full range of habitats. It is worth noting that this new definition specifically includes the words “A clearly defined geographic space…” instead of “land and/or sea”, as in an earlier [1994] definition, to embrace freshwater systems and brackish water systems.

Laffoley: It would be perverse to say that marine sites should operate under a different definition. Common sense dictates that for sites to be considered “marine” protected areas, we are talking about intertidal or subtidal areas that fit the protected area definition.

MPA News: In what ways do you expect the revised guidelines for protected area management to impact the management of MPAs?

Laffoley: The new guidelines have been written to provide more clarity on what can be included in each management category. This leaves the manager to decide where sites rest within the category system. This is of paramount importance because an objective assessment of the categories will better guide the development and implementation of management plans.

Dudley: The most immediate impact will be that some large MPAs, where different zones are permanent and defined in law, will be able to assign different categories to these zones. This was not possible under the previous guidelines.

Laffoley: I also expect that the guidance will help practitioners avoid problem areas so as to make management more achievable and measurable. For example, IUCN has taken the view in the guidelines that vertical zoning of MPAs (such as in the water column above seamounts) should be avoided due to the difficulties of enforcing such zones.

MPA News: The 86-page report devotes less than four pages to the subject of marine protected areas. Is this sufficient to address the particular challenges of categorizing MPAs?

Laffoley: A greater length of text is not necessarily a demonstration of better quality! The marine section is there to augment the overall principles highlighted in the beginning of the report, so it is misleading to focus on just the four pages of specific marine text. IUCN, and particularly WCPA – Marine, will be looking for feedback to see where further improvements in guidance are needed. There is already a commitment to having case studies on the WCPA website to provide further explanation, which will include MPAs.

Dudley: We will see whether or not the guidance in the current publication is sufficient for MPA practitioners. There is no reason why a special publication on interpreting the categories for MPAs should not be produced. My own opinion, however, is that MPAs are less different from terrestrial or freshwater protected areas than is sometimes claimed. Freshwater sites, for example, also have issues relating to temporary exclusions, vertical zoning, and categorization of zones. Hopefully the new guidelines have addressed some of these issues in general terms that will be applicable to all protected areas.

For more information:

Dan Laffoley, WCPA – Marine. E-mail:

Nigel Dudley, Equilibrium Research, Bristol, UK. E-mail: