Planning a network of marine protected areas requires knowledge of where MPAs currently exist, so that gaps in habitat protection can be addressed. Amid recent calls by governmental and conservation leaders for a worldwide network of MPAs by 2012 (MPA News 4:3 and 5:4), a project is underway to build an enhanced global database of MPAs, including each site’s location, regulations, and habitats. The goals of the project are to use the database to help design scenarios for a worldwide network of MPAs, and to track progress toward building such a network.

Louisa Wood – a Ph.D. candidate with the Sea Around Us project at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia (Canada) – is heading the initiative, a collaboration with the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas-Marine, and World Wildlife Fund.

In short, the project is enhancing the marine portion of an existing inventory of terrestrial and marine protected areas: the World Database on Protected Areas, maintained by UNEP-WCMC. This enhanced version, nicknamed MPA Global, focuses only on marine protected areas, lists some sites not included in the original inventory, and contains more detail on each site. When complete, MPA Global is to be re-incorporated in the World Database on Protected Areas. During and beyond this project, UNEP-WCMC will retain its international responsibility for collating protected area data as reported by national and regional agencies and other organizations.

Submissions welcomed

Wood points out that MPA Global is a work in progress. More sites – as well as details on sites already in the database – are being added, and edits by the public are welcomed following registration at the project website ( Such edits are necessary to fill gaps remaining in the information. The descriptions of many sites offer only basic data – location, size, date of designation, and legal authority – with little on habitat or regulations.

“Registration is open to anyone, and edits are attributed to the person who submits them,” says Wood. She reviews each edit submission and decides whether to incorporate it in the database, based on the information provided. All suggested edits are retained for comparative purposes.

The database allows visitors to search for MPAs by country, international convention, or site name. Approximately 5000 sites – including international, national, and state-level MPAs – are listed. Wood aims to conduct a thorough verification of the database in summer of 2005; until then, she cautions against using the data for analytical purposes. “The data at this point give a broad overview and, to be honest, the overall numbers might not change dramatically in the coming months,” she says. “But I don’t think they should be considered reliable yet.”

The MPA Global project generally follows the IUCN definition of marine protected area (“an 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” [IUCN 1992]). Wood says the project does not rule out the possibility of adding other types of spatial management tools that fall along the marine protection continuum, such as various kinds of fishery closures. By using this relatively broad concept of an MPA, the database will be useful to an array of parties, she says. Analysts who later want to examine a subset of the database – such as trawl closures or sites with subtidal habitat – will be able to do so using the additional information included on regulations or habitat.

MPA Global is the second project of its kind to inventory MPAs worldwide. IUCN produced the four-volume A Global Representative System of Marine Protected Areas in 1995, which divided the world’s marine waters into 18 large biogeographic zones and listed existing MPAs in each ( An update of that seminal work has not yet been done, so information on sites designated over the past decade is incomplete. In the meantime, efforts to assemble national and regional inventories of MPAs have been undertaken, including in the US and Canada (MPA News 2:9 and 3:2).

UNEP-WCMC last updated the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA, in 2004, in partnership with the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas and the WDPA Consortium, an advisory group of international conservation organizations.

For more information:

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

BOX: Defining “MPA” for an inventory

How many marine protected areas are there worldwide? The answer lies, to some extent, in how you define “marine protected area”. Should seasonal fishing closures be included? Gear closures? No-anchor areas around pipelines? The more inclusive the definition, the larger an inventory will be.

Since 2001, in partnership with other federal, state, and territorial programs, the US National MPA Center has been creating an inventory of what it terms marine managed areas (MMAs) in the nation’s federal and state waters. An interagency team determined that using the term MMA encompassed a potentially broader spectrum of management purposes than marine protected area, which is defined under US law as “any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources within them”. That definition includes words that have not yet been strictly defined by the government – among them “lasting”, leaving open the question of whether seasonal fishing closures are MPAs under US law.

Such sites can be included in the inventory as MMAs, however. “To include a site, what we look for at the minimum is a legally defined area that exists for some period of time in the same location each year, with at least the potential for permanence,” says Jonathan Kelsey of the National MPA Center, adding that resource protection must also be part of the site’s purpose. Of the sites in the inventory to date, there are 17 MMAs with protective regulations that do not apply throughout the entire year. In addition, there are 6 MMAs with protective regulations scheduled to expire in the future but which have some sort of renewal mechanism in place, or a history of renewals.

Not included in the inventory are sites such as gear closures designated solely to resolve gear conflicts, and closures around military, aerospace, and petroleum installations with no explicit purpose of protecting natural or cultural resources.

Officials expect to finish the draft MMA inventory ( by the end of 2005, and to define terms in the US MPA definition over the next two years. Staffers have also begun work on a list of de facto marine protected sites, including ones such as those above that have been excluded from the present inventory.

For more information:

Jonathan Kelsey, National MPA Center, 1305 East West Highway, N/ORM, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA. Tel: +1 301 563 7230; E-mail:

Lani Watson, NOS Special Projects, 1305 East West Highway, N/MB7, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA. Tel: +1 301 713 3000 x208; E-mail: