For many people, the term “marine protected area” evokes the idea of a pristine ecosystem, remote from human activities. The image of a city waterfront might not come to mind. However, MPAs can perform important functions near urban centers – serving as recreational sites, for example, or as protective zones for remaining patches of undisturbed habitat, among other purposes.

Such urban MPAs bring their own set of challenges. Coastal development, shipping activity, and large numbers of diverse stakeholders are just some of the factors to be faced during planning and management. This month, MPA News examines cases of urban MPAs around the world and how practitioners are addressing these challenges.

Establishing community-based MPAs in a large community: Lapu Lapu City (Philippines)

A project underway in the Philippines is working to determine how best to manage MPAs in urban settings. The project area, the city of Lapu Lapu, is within the second largest urban area in the nation: Cebu City, home to 2 million people and a thriving coastal tourism and diving industry. The project seeks to help local communities in Lapu Lapu define and establish a sustainable, city-wide MPA management framework. Lessons from that process will then be disseminated to other coastal urban areas in the region and nationwide.

Managed by the Philippine-based Coastal Dynamics Foundation along with the city government of Lapu Lapu and other partners, the project will build upon lessons learned from what is considered the first urban MPA in the Philippines. That MPA – the no-take Gilutongan Marine Sanctuary, formally established and enforced since 1998 – is just outside the Lapu Lapu project area. In Lapu Lapu itself, the concept of MPAs is still relatively new: its first marine protected area was designated in 2000. Since then, two more have been added and four are in advanced stages of designation. Each is planned and managed by a local coastal community, or “barangay”, within the city. The project is working with barangays and the city to coordinate efforts, including on education, capacity-building, and site-monitoring programs.

“On a global scale, the project area may represent some of the most accessible, high diversity coral reefs in the world,” says Mike Ross of the Coastal Dynamics Foundation. The waters of Lapu Lapu contain about 10-20 km2 of reef habitat in fair condition. Protecting that reef may be somewhat more complicated than it would be in a more remote area, says Ross. One reason: the major sources of income for local communities are city-based, so the typical barangay is not closely connected to its adjacent reef areas, aside from fishing there on days-off or as a secondary or tertiary livelihood. Rather than rely on an argument that protecting the reef will ensure sustainable catches over the long term, says Ross, other economic motivation becomes necessary. “For urban MPAs, the emphasis may need to be placed on the economic benefits to come to the community from sustainable recreational use of the reefs, such as from managed diving and coastal tourism,” he says.

The financial benefits from MPAs in the region can be significant. The nearby Gilutongan Marine Sanctuary collects nearly US$40,000 annually from diver fees, of which 50% goes to the local barangay to support MPA operations (the rest goes to the municipal government). If indirect economic benefits from that MPA are tallied, its total revenue generated for the community and local government is roughly US$200,000 per year. Local vendors, for example, are allowed to sell their wares at the MPA on a rotational basis, which builds community support for the site and adds additional “eyes” to help with enforcing MPA regulations during daytime. Concurrently, the attraction of the well-managed MPA has enhanced the local tourism and diving industry, increasing employment and income in this sector.

Alan White of the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCEF), a Philippine NGO that is also involved with MPAs in the area, says, “The benefit of an MPA’s proximity to an urban area is that once the MPA is set up and enforced, it can collect user fees that are significant and can cover the cost of management.” Notably, like the Gilutongan MPA, the MPAs being designated in Lapu Lapu are no-take but allow diving; the project is working to establish uniform user fee systems. If well-managed and enforced, the new MPAs should help reduce some of the current diver pressure on Gilutongan while increasing opportunities for enhanced economic and environmental benefits to the local communities. (Ross says that in the process of creating these MPAs, local resorts and dive operators need to be recognized as concerned stakeholders and involved as community members.)

This is not to say that planning and managing these MPAs is easy. “In cities like Lapu Lapu City, the challenges that are not present in more rural areas revolve around the number and sophistication of stakeholders,” says White. “There is industry; there is a dense urban population that creates lots of waste; there are large tourist investments that promote jet skis alongside of swimming and snorkeling; and there are traditional fishers and illegal fishers mixed in who are trying to defend their traditional lifestyle. In short, it is a bit of a mess, and requires much more vigorous methods of community-level work with well-trained community organizers than in more rural areas where values are less mixed.”

Protecting against coastal development: Queensland’s Fish Habitat Areas

In the Australian state of Queensland, the state is using a type of MPA to protect specifically against the effects of coastal development on important underwater habitats. Called “Fish Habitat Areas” or FHAs, these inshore and estuarine sites allow certain community uses like fishing and boating to occur. However, any activities requiring the disturbance of habitats within that FHA – including the building or maintenance of docks, bridges, pipelines, moorings, or other structures – are either prohibited or require special authorization, depending on site regulations. Direct discharge into FHA waters is prohibited, and any coastal development must include a vegetated buffer of at least 100 meters in width.

In use by the state since the late 1960s, FHAs are designated and managed by the state Department of Primary Industries – Fisheries (DPI Fisheries). The FHA program has over 70 sites, covering more than 7500 km2 of tidal and subtidal fish habitats. Several FHAs are adjacent to urban areas, including the Gold Coast and the cities of Cairns and Townsville.

Concessions can be made in FHA designation, says John Beumer, who oversees the FHA program. If a development requires vessel access through an FHA, for example, the proponent may be required to cede to the state other lands with equivalent fish habitat values in return for that access. Developers can also formally challenge the state to revoke portions of an established FHA, thus allowing development to proceed in the area. Beumer points out, though, that fewer than 10 such revocations of small areas within existing FHAs have occurred in the past 35 years. “Proposals for revocation usually involve a major development, such as an export mineral sand loading jetty,” he says. “A number of these have led to revocation but the development has failed to proceed, and the revoked lands have been re-declared as part of the FHA at a later date.”

By the nature of their purpose, FHAs enjoy significant backing from the Queensland public, says Beumer. “Fishing and boating are key pastimes in Queensland, and the objective of using FHAs to protect fish habitats from development while still permitting all legal forms of fishing has strong public and political support,” he says. Where there are violations of an FHA, such as illegal moorings, DPI Fisheries works with the violators and other government agencies to forge a solution, such as locating a common mooring site outside the FHA boundary.

In considering whether to designate a new FHA, DPI Fisheries considers several criteria related to habitat, fisheries, and existing and planned uses of the site. Where identified prior to designation, active development nodes may be given a small foreshore exclusion to allow for limited future development; in some cases, a proposed FHA may even be removed from further consideration. DPI Fisheries undertakes extensive community and stakeholder consultation in FHA planning, a process that can last up to three years, depending on the complexity of the issues involved. Beumer notes that designation of the state’s urban FHAs “fortunately” occurred prior to the mid-1980s, before coastal development in Queensland accelerated and DPI Fisheries had 200 development proposals on file. “Declaration of such urban areas now is more challenging given the long consultation process necessary and the need to accommodate existing pressures,” he says.

Protecting remaining habitat: San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (US)

San Francisco Bay in the US state of California once supported nearly 770 km2 of highly productive tidal marsh. Today, just 65 km2 remain, thanks to widespread development of coastline in a region that includes the city of San Francisco. Of the remaining portion, 15 km2 of the highest quality remaining wetland and adjacent habitat is included in the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (SF Bay NERR), designated in 2003. Collectively this habitat – comprised of two non-adjacent sites – serves as a reference against which enhanced, restored, or created wetlands in the region can be evaluated. No extractive activity is allowed in the reserve without a research permit.

SF Bay NERR is one of 26 NERR sites nationwide. The NERR system is a partnership between coastal states and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to protect estuaries and provide coastal decisionmakers with up-to-date scientific information, generated by research at each site. In the case of SF Bay NERR, the California state parks agency owns and manages one site (“China Camp”) while a private land trust owns and manages the other (“Rush Ranch”). San Francisco State University serves as lead agency and headquarters for the reserve. NOAA provides 70% of the reserve’s funding.

Original plans for the protected area involved up to 11 different sites and five different land management agencies. “One of the goals of the NERR program is to have the designated reserve represent the diversity of an estuary,” says Mike Vasey of San Francisco State University, who served as acting reserve manager during the reserve’s planning phase. In retrospect, he says, the attempt to incorporate sites throughout the bay was overly ambitious. Over time, two potential partner agencies withdrew to focus on other projects, leaving the reserve planners with three sites eligible for designation: China Camp, Rush Ranch, and Browns Island – the third being the largest and least disturbed remnant of tidal marshland in the area.

At this point, the reserve’s urban location became an issue. For ships to get to the nearby city of Stockton, they must pass Browns Island. The Port of Stockton, which purchased part of the island in the 1920s to serve as a dredge disposal site, has in recent years announced its intent to widen and deepen a channel that separates Browns Island from shore. The widening could potentially involve removal of part of the island. If the land were included in the NERR, the port was concerned the protected status could restrict its dredging plan, despite assurances to the contrary from state and federal permitting agencies.

“This was a totally unexpected complication,” says Vasey. The port, using its leverage as a landowner and its political influence at the federal level, had Browns Island removed from consideration.

Vasey says, “The ironic part of this story is that, of the eleven proposed components, the two with which we ended up are really the two best sites for the reserve in terms of accessibility, landscape representativeness, and already existing programs that we can build on. Throughout these challenges, we maintained a level of persistence, optimism, and adaptiveness. There was never a question that the region really needed to have a NERR present.” As the reserve becomes more established over time, he says, its partnering agencies will likely devote resources to acquisition of additional sites.

For more information:

Mike Ross, Coastal Dynamics Foundation, Buyong Beach, Maribago, Lapu Lapu City, Cebu, Philippines. Tel: +63 32 340 1845; E-mail:; Web:

Alan White, CCEF, Room 302, PDI Condominium, Archbishop Reyes Ave., Banilad, Cebu City 6000 Philippines. Tel: +63 32 233 6947; E-mail:; Web:

John Beumer, Marine Fish Habitats/FAD/DPI&F, GPO Box 46, Brisbane QLD 4001, Australia. Tel: +61 7 3224 2238; E-mail:

Mike Vasey, SFSU-Romberg Tiburon Center, 3152 Paradise Drive, Tiburon, CA 94920-1205, USA. E-mail:

Jaime Kooser (SF Bay NERR manager), SFSU-Romberg Tiburon Center, 3152 Paradise Drive, Tiburon, CA 94920-1205, USA. Tel: +1 415 338 3703; E-mail:; Web:

BOX: Pollution and urban MPAs

A significant challenge for urban MPAs is pollution. Sewage and industrial effluent, as well as storm water runoff containing sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, and other pollutants, can place a major strain on nearby protected areas. In February 2002, MPA News described how various urban and non-urban MPAs were handling the issue of water quality (MPA News 3:7).

Addressing the pollution threat often involves cooperating with other management authorities onshore. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, for example, worked with federal and state agencies, industry, NGOs, and the general public to develop the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, released in October 2003. The plan covers several urban areas and 26 major river catchments adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. For an overview of the water-quality challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef and to download the protection plan, go to

BOX: Accessibility and economic potential

In tourism, says Mike Ross of the Philippine-based Coastal Dynamics Foundation, accessibility is key, and being near a city provides that accessibility. “The closer an MPA is to tourists, the greater its economic potential,” he says. “Tourist stays are growing shorter. For them, time is money. In addition, closeness adds value for other potential users such as swimmers, snorkelers, and newer divers who may not be as interested in traveling to more remote sites.” With user fees, he points out, the more users, the more revenue.