When calculating global MPA coverage, what sites to include is a central question

In the 13 years since we started publication, the MPA News team has generally taken an inclusive view of what counts as a marine protected area. Gear closures, temporary closures, underwater cultural sites, closed areas around military bases – we have drawn lessons from all of these at one time or another.

Our reasoning is two-fold. First, when useful knowledge and experience can be transferred from such sites to the managers of more strictly defined MPAs, we should seize such opportunities. We would rather err on the side of casting our information net widely rather than excluding sites whose managers could conceivably share, or receive, valuable insights. Second, efforts to use closed areas for habitat or single-species protection, or for limited temporal measures, should not be discouraged because they do not meet some stricter definition of an MPA.

But when it comes to measuring global progress toward MPA geographic coverage goals – like the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s “Aichi target” of 10% global MPA coverage by 2020 (see box “The Aichi target and other targets” at the end of this article) – is it still appropriate to take such an inclusive approach? Although an inclusive approach means more sites qualify to be counted (and goals may therefore be reached more readily), it also means including some sites like ones listed above that may not represent many people’s concept of a conservation ideal.

The central question is, What qualifies as an MPA? This question – a source of disagreement in the MPA community from the beginning of the field – has been reignited as a result of two recent developments:

  • The emergence of new global tabulations of MPAs – the MPAtlas.org database and a global coverage calculation by the Marine Reserves Coalition (MPA News 14:1) – each of which relies on a version of the same original database but with some sub-selection or modification; and
  • New guidelines from the World Commission on Protected Areas for applying the IUCN protected area management categories to MPAs. The guidelines clearly specify what should not be considered as marine protected areas – notably, any areas that allow extractive use with no long-term goal of conservation (https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_categoriesmpa_eng.pdf).

Together these developments present a choice for the field on how global MPA coverage should be measured: with a relatively inclusive view that incorporates a wide range of sites, or with a more exclusive view that focuses more on a stricter definition of MPAs. MPA News explores this issue.

Different MPAs, different calculations

In September 2012 at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Korea, new statistics were presented from a forthcoming publication (Spalding et al. in press, Ocean Yearbook, Vol. 27) by The Nature Conservancy and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC). Analyzing current progress toward reaching global protected area coverage targets, they concluded that MPAs now cover 2.3% of the world ocean. The good news, according to the report, is that this represents a five-fold increase in MPA coverage in just under a decade. (Summary statistics are at http://www.nature.org/newsfeatures/pressreleases/tnc-marine-policy-brief-2012.pdf)

The WCMC manages the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), and that database serves as the central repository for global coverage data. State representatives typically provide the input data, guided by expert reviewers from the WCMC. The abovementioned Marine Reserves Coalition calculation of global MPA coverage and the new MPAtlas.org website rely on the WDPA as their foundation. “Each group is using the same database,” says Mark Spalding of The Nature Conservancy, who has led three global MPA reviews (see, for example, MPA News 12:3). “They are not independent approaches.”

Still, because the decision on what counts as an MPA can vary from organization to organization, and from person to person, there are some differences among the three projects. The Marine Reserves Coalition concluded, for example, that global MPA coverage was actually 3.2% – nearly a percentage point higher than the UNEP calculation. How? In part, it supplemented the WDPA with additional sites, including large MPAs in Australia that had been proposed but not yet officially designated at that time, and vast no-trawl zones off the coast of Portugal and North Africa that have not been submitted to the WDPA. For its part, MPAtlas.org has also supplemented the WDPA by including the full US National MPA System in its tabulation. Significant tracts of the US system may not meet the IUCN definition of MPA and thus may not be included in the WDPA.

“Of course users of the WDPA are welcome to make their own selections, but site-by-site alterations should come with a caution,” says Spalding. “In past studies we’ve added sites, but only in the knowledge that they were in the process of being added into the WDPA. If you add sites that have been deliberately excluded from the WDPA, or take others out that have been deliberately included, you are opening a can of worms. If you decide to add in a large site – and remember that a state may have chosen not to include it, and in many cases may know the legal and management status better than you – you will not only change the statistics. You will also have an automatically incomplete dataset: clearly, you won’t have time to check all 8000 or so other sites, or to scour the world for other sites equivalent to the ones you added.” He says the virtue of the WDPA is that it has been populated by a detailed process with significant expert input from hundreds of global, national, and local experts. “It may be clunky and not fully up-to-date everywhere but it follows a consistent and increasingly robust process,” he says.

Recategorizing MPAs

In preparing this article, MPA News invited the Marine Reserves Coalition and MPAtlas.org to comment on what they would count as MPAs, based on a list of sites provided by MPA News. A selection of their answers is here. One interesting answer pertained to an enormous network of gear closures to protect seafloor habitat in the North Pacific – the Aleutian Islands Habitat Conservation Area, covering 957,000 km2. This site is in the US National MPA System and thus also in the MPAtlas as a marine protected area. But MPAtlas plans to recategorize it as a fisheries regulatory area, not an MPA.

Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, which developed MPAtlas.org, says the goal of recategorizing is to help provide some differentiation within what otherwise is a catchall term of “MPA”. “I know there are a lot of people who don’t think different areas meet ‘MPA’ standards, and we are trying to set a standard for what we mean by ‘MPA’ in the MPAtlas,” he says. “Then we can display these areas differently from other areas that don’t meet that standard. We have been researching areas and trying to determine if the areas restrict all, some, or no fishing, and whether it was done as a fishery regulation or as a managed area. We recognize that there is a relatively large gray zone here.”

Dan Laffoley led the five-year development of the new guidelines for applying IUCN protected area management categories to MPAs. He says it is time that the term marine protected area is applied more carefully. “We need to ensure that what we refer to as MPAs are sites that really do meet the grade,” he says. “The supplementary guidelines are specifically aimed at helping better inform everyone’s understanding of what is – and is not – an MPA.”

He says the advice is badly needed. “In recent years I have seen examples both from inside our practitioner community and among policymakers and the public that have demonstrated a lack of understanding of core MPA principles, leading to an erosion of the value of the MPA concept,” he says. “In the guidance, we have therefore given more detail about the IUCN ‘protected area’ definition as applied to the ocean, about spatial measures that are therefore probably not MPAs (it’s always difficult to create clean rules at a global scale), and much more detail on how to assign an MPA to one of the management categories.”

Impact of more restrictive definition on global coverage targets

Assuming the new IUCN guidance is gradually applied, and the greater clarity around the MPA definition causes some current “MPAs” to become “non-MPAs”, Laffoley admits there could be a change in total MPA area coverage calculations. “I hope, however, that we will gain confidence in the associated processes to count MPAs, to recognize and track progress, and to allocate MPAs to categories,” he says. “I also hope it will signal the end to the notions that ‘MPA’ only means no-take or marine reserves: remember, for example, that 65% of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is not no-take but makes an essential contribution to the MPA. In addition, I hope the clearer definition signals that fisheries management areas are not automatically de facto MPAs, that pipeline and windfarm exclusion areas are not MPAs, and that wider spatial measures do not also qualify. In most cases they won’t and they don’t unless they clearly meet the definition. I think it is critically important to realize that there is a ‘reasonableness of application’ argument that must be employed for areas that ‘sort of seem to fit the definition’.”

Laffoley says the reasonableness of application can be used to dispel some un-truths about particular sites. “If you have a spatial action put in place to reduce conflict on impacts between an activity – say, fishing – and a marine species or group of species, then this is an area-based species measure. It is not an area-based conservation measure aimed principally at conserving the area, and so is not an MPA. This does not mean that such measures are not important – far from it. But they are not MPAs and should not be counted as such.”

For more information:

Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy, Cambridge, UK. Email: mspalding@tnc.org

Lance Morgan, Marine Conservation Institute, Sonoma, California, US. Email: Lance.Morgan@marine-conservation.org

Dan Laffoley, World Commission on Protected Areas, IUCN, UK. Email: danlaffoley@btinternet.com

BOX: The Aichi target and other targets

In the MPA community, Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 under the Convention on Biological Diversity is often called, simply, “the Aichi target”. It says:

“By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.”

Notably, the phrase “other effective area-based conservation measures” opens the door for non-MPA sites to be included in measures of progress – not necessarily as a way to avoid having to designate MPAs but, ideally, to acknowledge other efforts at integrated sustainable management.

Still, the Aichi target is not the only international target for MPAs. Delegates to the marine-theme workshops at the 2003 World Parks Congress, for example, called for MPA networks globally to include at least 20-30% of each marine and coastal habitat in “strictly protected areas” – a substantially more ambitious goal than Aichi.