Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are areas set aside to protect marine ecosystems. They are an example of an area-based management measure relevant to EBA; others include integrated coastal management (ICM) and marine spatial planning (MSP). MPAs have a clearly defined geographical space, which is recognised, dedicated and managed (through legal or other effective means) to achieve long-term conservation of nature, along with associated ecosystem services and cultural values (ref). Globally, MPAs cover 3.4% of the world’s oceans, and over 10% of coastal waters (ref).

© Jason Valdez /

Common on-site approaches to establishing Marine Protected Areas

The most common approach to establishing an MPA or MPA network involves legally designating a defined geographical area or areas for the purpose of marine protection, and subsequently managing and monitoring the site. The selection of MPA sites should be informed by sound consideration of their effectiveness to fulfil their objectives, which beyond conserving biodiversity, may include climate change adaptation and livelihood diversification. More details on the broader range of issues that can affect success are presented on this page. 

Marine Protected Areas as an EBA measure

MPAs are a tool to conserve species and habitats, maintain ecosystem functions and resilience, manage fisheries, reduce risks from natural disasters and protect natural and cultural resources and values important to human well-being (ref). Increasingly, their relevance to climate change adaptation is being recognised (ref). 

MPAs often safeguard natural ecosystems in seascapes characterised by mounting development pressures and they benefit from legal recognition or institutional backing that ensure their long-term commitment to protection (ref). Furthermore, in order to be a successful adaptation option, MPAs should have agreed governance and management approaches and the capacity to implement management plans and to carry out monitoring and evaluation (ref). With such structures and capabilities in place, coastal MPAs are well positioned to support EBA. 

MPAs can support fisheries

Fishing and harvesting of marine resources are the primary livelihood activity of many coastal residents (ref). The positive ecological impacts MPAs can have on fisheries, such as increased biomass, species density, species richness and size (ref), can lead to spillover of adult species into surrounding areas, in particular from no-take zones (ref), therefore benefitting coastal economies through increased catch and catch per unit effort (ref). MPAs can therefore provide a means for offsetting the combined impacts of over-fishing and climate change on fish stocks.

© Rebecca Weeks /

MPAs can lead to improvements in coral cover, reef ecology and structural integrity by limiting practices of destructive fishing (ref), all of which contribute to building ecosystem resilience and reducing risks to humans from natural disasters, which are predicted to increase under climate change (ref).

Marine Protected Areas can contribute to diversified livelihoods

MPAs can also help people build their resilience by offering alternative sources of livelihoods and income. Tourism is often promoted in MPAs in the form of snorkelling, diving, wildlife viewing, cultural or eco-tourism in order to create employment and generate revenue (ref). Besides generating livelihood options through direct employment in park management, MPAs can also assist local communities in developing other alternative livelihood options that are sustainable in the context of the MPA and diversify people’s income sources. Alternative livelihood options within MPAs could include climate change-resistant agricultural activities, raising livestock, aquaculture, mariculture, seaweed farming, beekeeping, handicrafts or tree nurseries. If climate change makes some livelihoods less reliable, access to a wide variety of livelihood options can mean people and communities may be less impacted by a reduction in any one livelihood.

If well managed, MPAs have great potential to contribute to EBA as they "can lead to increased food security, wealth and household assets, and levels of employment (particularly from tourism), diversified livelihoods, improved governance, greater access to health and social infrastructure, revitalized cultural institutions, strengthened community organization, greater participation in natural resource management, increased empowerment of women and reinvigorated common property regimes for local communities" (ref).

Key issues that can affect success

MPAs need good design and management

Although MPAs do have the potential to create a wide variety of benefits to people through the use of nature-based approaches, their implementation as an EBA option needs careful consideration. As much as MPAs can have positive effects on building the resilience of coastal communities, they can equally have the potential to reduce resilience. These include worsened conflicts and political struggles, increased vulnerabilities, alienation or marginalisation of fishermen in natural resources management processes, loss of assets or tenure, inequitable distribution of benefits or decreased food security in the short term (ref). To avoid the generation of adverse socioeconomic impacts and negative ecological knock-on effects, MPAs need to be well designed and effectively managed. This requirement is met in only a minority of cases, however. Globally, only 24% of all protected areas are managed ‘soundly’ (ref) and of MPAs in South East Asia, for example, only 14% are estimated to be effectively managed (ref), or only 20% of 1,100 MPAs in the Philippines (ref). Limited management effectiveness and coverage of protected area networks reduces their ability to be robust enough to withstand climate change and contribute positively to response strategies (ref). The potential of MPAs to make contributions to biodiversity conservation, supporting livelihoods and fisheries management as well as climate change, therefore currently remains only partially realized.

©Ethan Daniels /

In order for MPAs to fulfil their potential as tools to support EBA, their design, effectiveness and limitations need to be fully considered. Other EBA options presented on this website have the potential to be incorporated into an MPA. Ecological guidelines in MPA design are also important, including habitat representation, risk spreading, protecting critical, special and unique areas, incorporating connectivity, allowing for recovery, minimizing local threats and adapting to ocean chemistry and climate change (see Green et al., 2014 in Useful resources and materials at the bottom of this page for more details). In relation to climate change, it is important to allow for responsiveness and flexibility in MPA design as possible effects of climate change on marine ecosystems could, amongst other things, shift critical ecological functions outside MPA borders (see Brock et al., 2012 in the Useful resources and materials section at the bottom of this page for more details).

MPAs need good governance

Good governance is crucial both for effective and equitable conservation and in determining the effectiveness and efficiency of MPA management (see Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2013 in Useful resources and materials at the bottom of this page for more details). Good governance can build a solid base for management, development and the achievement of desired social and ecological outcomes by creating an enabling institutional environment, determining the process of implementation and design of MPAs and choosing the management structure and design (ref). Early and meaningful engagement with local communities and other key stakeholders is crucial in order to determine contextually appropriate and mutually-accepted MPA objectives, management structures and design that all stakeholders agree to support, thereby reducing potential for future conflict (ref).

© Peter Prokosch /

MPAs require adequate management capacity and resource availability

Even with effective governance in place, the potential of an MPA to achieve positive social and ecological outcomes is highly dependent on management capacities and available resources to carry out its planned actions, law enforcement, monitoring and evaluation.

Understanding the context in which MPAs operate is key

In addition to a myriad of other factors to take into account in creating an effective MPA (ref), in all cases it is important to consider its design and implementation in the appropriate local socioeconomic and planning context in order to avoid ‘risk of misfit’ (ref).

MPAs need to be integrated into broader marine and coastal management and zoning efforts

For MPAs to maximize their contribution to EBA not only within the specific area they are established to protect, but also to the wider land- and seascape, it is important to integrate them into broader marine and coastal management efforts (ref). MPAs can, for example, be more effective in supporting fisheries if they are nested within other fisheries management actions outside their boundaries (ref). You can also read more about sustainable fisheries management here.

Policies for MPAs need to recognise the interconnectivity between terrestrial and marine systems 

As many threats to coastal and marine systems originate on land, it is important to create policies that span both terrestrial and marine realms so that they are managed consistently (ref). Considering the interconnectedness of systems beyond MPA borders can also help increase ecosystem resilience to climate change, such as with coral reefs that can become more resilient when combined with the reduction of sedimentation and nutrient loading as well as land and marine-based sources of pollution (ref). For this reason, local and national governments could usefully incorporate the role of MPAs in climate change response strategies and action plans (ref), including EBA. 

Useful resources and materials

  • Green et al. 2014. Includes a useful table with ecological guidelines for marine reserve networks to fulfil three main objectives: fisheries management, biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation. The guidelines are sorted according to categories, including habitat representation (e.g. suggesting that 20 – 40 % of major habitats be represented in marine reserve networks); risk spreading; protecting critical, special and unique areas; incorporating connectivity; allowing time for recovery; adapting to changes in climate and ocean chemistry; and minimizing and avoiding local threats. Designing Marine Reserves for Fisheries Management, Biodiversity Conservation, and Climate Change Adaptation.
  • Brock et al. 2012. These guidelines promote best practice, collaboration and consistency of approach when designing MPAs. They provide detailed steps for scientists, managers and planners on how to work toward meeting objectives considered critical to improving resilience toward climate change and includes case studies for each objective. Additionally, Annex 2 provides a useful table: “Generalized effects of climate-driven oceanographic changes on components of the ecosystem” that uses species groups as indicators for climate-driven pressures. For example, an increase in water and/or air temperature would reduce size of phytoplankton, increase jellyfish abundance and result in a northward shift in distribution of benthos and fish. Scientific Guidelines for Designing Resilient Marine Protected Area Networks in a Changing Climate.
  • Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2013. Includes specific guidelines for governance of protected areas. The first part provides an explanation with examples of the four different governance types recognised by the IUCN: governmental, shared, private, and governance by indigenous or local peoples. Table 2 summarises management objectives for different protected area categories and their corresponding international name. The second part of the report provides detailed and useful information on how to evaluate governance of protected areas, including a step-by-step framework for assessing governance, with key questions that can be asked in an evaluation of protected area governance. Furthermore, specific assessments of existing protected areas are used as case studies. Governance of protected areas: from understanding to action. Best practice protected area guidelines series No. 20.
  • Jones and Qiu. 2011. Technical report that brings together 20 MPA case studies from different regions around the world. The report looks at MPAs from a governance perspective and deals with the question on how to “combine top-down, bottom-up and market approaches for reaching and implementing decisions in order to achieve effective and equitable MPAs”. Governing Marine Protected Areas – Getting the balance right.
  • WWF International. 2014. Report on the Climate Adaptation Methodology for Protected Areas (CAMPA) which has been developed to help managers of Coastal and Marine Protected areas and other stakeholders to respond and adapt to climate change. Changing tides – Climate Adaptation Methodology for Protected Areas (CAMPA).