Mark Spalding and Kristina Gjerde were principal contributors to the report Global Ocean Protection: Current Trends and Future Opportunities, which analyzed global MPA trends in preparation for the October biodiversity meeting in Nagoya. Spalding, a senior marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy, was one of the report’s editors. Gjerde, high seas policy advisor to IUCN, co-authored two chapters of the report. Here, they discuss with MPA News the implications of the new Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreement to extend the 10% target deadline from 2012 to 2020, and other outcomes from Nagoya:

MPA News: The CBD meeting gave the world an additional eight years to meet the 10% MPA coverage target for each coastal and marine ecoregion. Was that extension a good idea?

Mark Spalding: Targets are tricky things. They have to be realistic and achievable, but also have to set down a challenge. Look at the numbers: we have only 1.17% of the global ocean surface protected. A target of 10% by 2012 was probably way too ambitious and 2020 is perhaps more realistic.

Personally I think 10% is a useful target only if it is seen as a waypoint, not an endpoint. For those countries that are ahead of the curve on MPA coverage: don’t stop. And for critically important habitats on which people depend, even 25% coverage in MPAs may not be enough. We also need to think about the remaining percentage of the ocean that is not in MPAs, because what we do there will either make sense (or a mockery) of MPA policy. Eventually our target should be to have 100% of the oceans managed actively and sustainably.

Kristina Gjerde: The 10% target agreed in Nagoya was a disappointment. It does not come close to what is scientifically required to sustain highly migratory species, let alone maintain vital ecological processes or support commercially important fisheries. Higher levels of protection are essential to meet the mounting intensity of human activities as well as the twin threats of climate change and ocean acidification.

Thus we are faced with three challenges by 2020:

  1. To develop the capacity and political will to achieve at least the 10% MPA target for all coastal and marine habitats, including their effective management;
  2. To scale up and integrate conservation goals and targets into sectoral management for the other 90%; and
  3. To stimulate efforts to go beyond the 10% MPA target wherever possible, both within and beyond national jurisdiction.

This is no easy task, but doable. We are already seeing acceleration in the designation of open ocean and deep sea protected areas. We are also seeing greater willingness to cooperate regionally in the development of MPA networks. Initiatives such as the Micronesia Challenge, the Caribbean Challenge, and the Coral Triangle Initiative that are striving for 30% coverage in coastal and/or marine protected areas are testament to what enlightened leaders can achieve.

MPA News: Were there specific outcomes from the CBD meeting for high seas MPAs?

Gjerde: Discussions on high seas MPAs were tough because many countries thought the political process to enable high seas MPAs must take place through the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) or regional agreements, rather than the CBD. So the most important discussions with regard to the future of high seas conservation took place in the Working Group on the coastal and marine program of work, not the Working Group debating the strategic targets.

The CBD Conference of the Parties affirmed and elaborated the role of the CBD in providing scientific and technical advice relating to areas beyond national jurisdiction that are in need of protection. The Conference of the Parties took the following measures:

  • It approved a series of regional and sub-regional workshops to facilitate the description of areas of ecological or biological significance;
  • It established a repository to make related data, information, and experience widely available;
  • It created a process for the CBD Conference of the Parties to officially endorse areas that meet the criteria for ecological or biological significance and to convey the endorsement and associated information to other competent intergovernmental organizations, including the UNGA, for further action;
  • It urged the UN ad hoc Working Group on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction to expedite its consideration of issues related to MPAs beyond national jurisdiction;
  • It invited the GEF, other donors, and funding agencies to extend support for capacity building in order to identify areas of ecological or biological significance and to develop appropriate protection measures in these areas; and
  • It authorized the development of guidelines for environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments. Prior assessments can ensure that management measures are based on the best scientific information available and take proper precautions to prevent significant harm. This could provide the cornerstone for integrating biodiversity concerns into decision-making processes affecting biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

MPA News: The Global Ocean Protection report found that the median size of MPAs worldwide is 1.6 km2 and that nearly half of MPAs are less than 1 km2. Will it be difficult to meet the 2020 target if the median size remains this small?

Spalding: I don’t think small sites are a problem – quite the opposite. The rapid growth of community supported MPAs and of locally managed marine areas (LMMAs) is a really healthy trend. Apo Island in the Philippines, and hundreds of other sites, bear witness at very local levels to the potential of MPAs. The spread of LMMAs in some Pacific Island nations has been indigenous, not NGO-mediated, as local villages look over their shoulders and see the success of their neighbors. By contrast the designation of large sites in areas with high levels of human use can be a huge challenge to establish and manage. If such large sites cannot be made to work, there is still the potential to increase the numbers of smaller sites and to evolve toward a more systematic approach – of building not only a “network” but also improving management of the spaces in between.

This brings me to another observation: the report shines a light on a fascinating dichotomy. While the median size of MPAs is 1.6 km2 (that is, if all MPAs were arranged in order of size, the middle one would be 1.6 km2), the mean average size is much bigger: 741 km2. A few very large sites are responsible for a major part of the global statistics. We’ve shown a recent, rapid acceleration in MPA coverage, giving us some hope that 10% may be within our grasp, but this trend is largely driven by just a handful of sites. The report lists 24 MPAs greater than 30,000 km2, which is larger than Belgium.

Such mega-MPAs are really important, but they must not throw us off course. Although they can help protect the last pristine areas, provide refuges, and work at large ecosystem scales, they might not provide the per capita benefits to people that small local MPAs provide. They also don’t offer the opportunities to support resilience and recovery in places where the threat levels are highest. There is a slight danger that people working in the international MPA community become “stamp collectors”, thrilling at the latest massive addition and not realizing that critical action is also going to have to take place close to home. We need both.

For more information:

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

Kristina Gjerde, IUCN Global Marine Programme, Konstancin-Chylice, Poland. E-mail: