What is a Marine Protected Area (MPA)?
A marine protected area (MPA) is basically an area of the ocean where human activities are more strictly managed than in the surrounding waters, in a similar way protected areas and parks operate on land.
There are a range of formal definitions for MPAs, but the most widely used is from the world conservation union, where an MPA is defined as: ‘a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’.
There are lots of different types of MPA’s that have been established for specific purposes in different locations and situations. Commonly however, MPA’s all have ecological, social and economic objectives.
Common ecological objectives are:
  • To safeguard critical ecosystems for marine life;
  • To preserve habitats considered critical for the survival and/or lifecycles of species, including economically important species;
  • To ensure the long-term viability and maintenance of marine species biodiversity;
  • To protect depleted, threatened, rare or endangered species and populations;
  • To prevent outside activities from negatively affecting the area(s).
Common social objectives are:
  • To provide food security for people reliant on marine resources for the necessary nutrients for life;
  • To preserve and manage historical and culturally important sites for local communities, and protect the natural aesthetic values of marine areas;
  • To accommodate a range of human activities that are compatible with sustainable marine management (such as tourism and education);
  • To incorporate and reflect traditional wisdom/knowledge in design and management, to preserve, respect and strengthen cultural norms and values that support marine biodiversity preservation;
  • To provide for research and training, and for monitoring the environmental effect of human activities, including the direct and indirect effects of development and adjacent land-use practices.
Common economic objectives are:
  • To ensure the continued production of economically important marine products from the ocean (such as fish and other marine species that are regularly used for consumption). MPA’s achieve this by providing refuges for fish and other species to grow, breed and repopulate surrounding waters through the spillover effect;
  • To protect the natural resource base that can provide alternative revenue generating opportunities through non-exploitative activities, such as sustainable marine based tourism and well managed aquaculture;
  • To ensure critical ecosystem services remain viable for both present and future generations.
Many MPA’s in the Coral Triangle have areas within them that are completely ‘No-Take’ (in other words, no extractive activities at all are permitted in those areas). In addition to these no take zones, many MPA’s will have particular zones for particular uses, for example traditional fishing zones (where only local fishers living in or around the MPA are permitted to fish, or where only particular gears are allowed to be used), or tourism zones (where no fishing or extraction is allowed, but where divers and marine enthusiasts are permitted to enter).
Example of MPA Zoning map showing the various restrictions in different areas
MPA’s are an important tool for marine resource management. However, alone MPA’s cannot address all marine problems, such as pollution, and other management strategies are needed to complement MPA’s around the world.
In the Coral Triangle MPA’s are managed through a range of agencies. Governments in all six CT countries have established MPA’s that are managed by national and local government staff. In addition to these, in some areas of the Coral Triangle, local communities have worked to establish MPA’s that they manage themselves with endorsement from the relevant government jurisdictions.
Globally MPA’s cover just over 2 percent of the world’s oceans, with only about 1% strongly protected in no-take areas. In the Coral Triangle more than a thousand MPA’s have been formally established through the region over the last twenty years, and yet together they still protect less than 3 percent of the six nations’ combined territorial waters. In addition to this, less than 1 percent of the coral reefs within MPA’s are rated as effectively managed.
With rapidly diminishing marine and coastal resources throughout the region, it is critical that the existing MPA’s are supported to be effectively managed, and that further MPA’s are established in order to provide a buffer to the continuing human-induced pressures being experienced by our coastal marine ecosystems.
Coral Triangle Center

An ecosystem is a complex set of relationships among the living resources, habitats and residents of an area. Ecosystems can vary greatly in size, but each is a functioning unit of nature. A coral reef is a good example of an ecosystem. Everything that lives in an ecosystem is dependent on other species and elements that are also part of that ecological community. If one part of an ecosystem is damaged or disappears, it has an impact on everything else. When an ecosystem is ‘sustainable’ it means that all the elements are in balance and are capable of reproducing themselves successfully and maintaining life.

Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is the term given to the variety of life on Earth. It is the variety within and between all species of plants, animals and micro-organisms, and the ecosystems within which they live and interact. Biodiversity comprises all the millions of different species that live on our planet, as well as the genetic differences within species. (Swingland, 2001)

One in every four species in the sea is currently facing an increased risk of extinction. This includes many important and charismatic species, such as Dugongs, Sawfish, Turtles, Sharks, Rays and Whales. In the Coral Triangle, more than 85 percent of coral reefs are currently threatened by local stressors, which is substantially higher than the global average of 60 percent. Nearly 45 percent are at high or very high threat levels. The most widespread local threat to coral reefs in this region is overfishing, including destructive fishing, which threatens nearly 85 percent of reefs. Watershed-based pollution is also pervasive, threatening 45 percent of reefs. Impacts from coastal development threaten more than 30 percent of the region’s reefs. When the influence of climate change is combined with these local threats, the percent of reefs rated as threatened increases to more than 90 percent, which is substantially greater than the global average of 75 percent. By 2050, all reefs in the Coral Triangle Region are projected to be threatened, with more than 90 percent in the high, very high, or critical categories. (Webb, T.J. & B.L. Mindel, 2015, the Marine Conservation Institute, Reefs at Risk Revisited for the Coral Triangle, 2012).

Nearly two thirds of the world’s human population gain around 15% of their dietary protein intake from fish and marine products. The ocean provides a vital source of nutrition on a planetary scale. In the Coral Triangle the proportion of dietary protein received from marine species can be up to 95% in some areas, and the region is host to the top three countries dependent on the marine environment for their food security: Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. In addition to this more than 130 million people across the Coral Triangle region are dependent on marine resources for their livelihoods, and in the Solomon Islands alone 80% of households engage in fishing as a means of gaining both nutrition and income. (Marine Stewardship Council, Reefs at Risk revisited in the Coral Triangle).

The ‘Spillover Effect’ is when fish and other species protected within an MPA grow and reproduce to the extent that their offspring migrate to surrounding waters and effectively repopulate neighboring areas. These neighboring areas are generally accessible to fishermen, so that the effective management of an MPA can lead to fishermen catching more fish, of larger sizes, in the vicinity of the protected area. Depending on the size and scale of the MPA, and the species that inhabit the area, the spillover effect can be localized to specific areas, or far reaching with species (and larvae of species) migrating considerable distances.

Ecosystem services are the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living. Examples of marine ecosystem services include products such as food, water, oxygen to breathe, safeguarding of coastal erosion, provision of materials for building, sources of natural resources for vital pharmaceuticals and medicines, as well as non-material benefits such as recreational and spiritual benefits in natural areas. The term ‘services’ is usually used to encompass the tangible and intangible benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems, which are sometimes separated into ‘goods’ and ‘services’. (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment)