Dr Laura Jeffery
Until the end of the 20th century, most Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were relatively small-scale conservation zones in coastal waters. The past decade has seen a proliferation in the designation of ever larger MPAs. Mega MPAs measuring over 100,000km² now already comprise the vast majority of the total area covered by MPAs worldwide. But why are the world’s powerful leaders – including Clinton, Bush, and Obama – competing to create ever larger MPAs?
The states party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have agreed on a target to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. Mega MPAs clearly help governments as they seek to reach this (repeatedly deferred) target, but do they offer effective protection? Proponents argue that the smaller border-to-area ratio of mega MPAs means that the area of well-protected ocean in the middle is increased while the border zones exposed to external threats are reduced. But critics point to a range of problems associated with mega MPAs:
Challenges to surveillance and enforcement: Size and remoteness pose particular challenges for effective surveillance and enforcement of mega MPAs, where surveillance vessels cannot effectively patrol such large areas, and remote sensing technologies cannot track illegal fishing vessels that do not have satellite tags. Environmental NGOS (eNGOs) have reported widespread illegal fishing within numerous MPAs, including illegal shark fishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (Ecuador).
Diverting attention from real challenges: Most mega MPAs have been designated in remote areas with little human habitation, but this means they are not ideally located to address the real challenges facing the world’s oceans, such as overfishing, tourism, and pollution. A good example of this is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument designated around the uninhabited and relatively unexploited northwest Hawaiian Islands (USA).
Vulnerability to commercial interests: Seeking to meet ambitious targets without threatening economic growth, governments are likely to protect areas that already have low economic value. Australia’s Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, for instance, covers deep water that sees little fishing activity at present, and leaves the most valuable commercial fishing areas unrestricted.
Undermining social justice: By banning resource use within vast areas, mega MPAs risk undermining social justice in terms of equitable access to economic livelihoods. The UK’s Chagos Marine Protected Area, for example, seems to have been designed to entrench UK sovereignty over an Indian Ocean territory also claimed by Mauritius, safeguard the security of the US military base on Diego Garcia, and harm the displaced islanders’ campaign for their right of return to the Chagos Archipelago.
Diverting resources from existing MPAs: Promoting mega MPAs may divert attention and resources from improving the management and effectiveness of existing or smaller MPAs. On the other hand, however, mega MPAs such as the Chagos MPA and South Georgia and Sandwich Islands (UK/Argentina) were designated alongside a network of smaller coastal MPAs around the UK mainland; Australia’s Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve was designated alongside smaller MPAs in areas of high resource use.
- Can national solutions such as mega MPAs effectively address global challenges?
- How can remote mega MPAs be effectively monitored and enforced?
- Does vulnerability to commercial interests undermine mega MPAs?
- Do remote mega MPAs divert attention from the real issues?
- Do mega MPAs undermine social justice?
- Do mega MPAs divert resources from smaller MPAs and MPA networks?
- Can MPA networks and Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) offer effective solutions?
- MPA News. International news and analysis on marine protected areas published by the University of Washington.
- De Santo, E.M. 2013. Missing marine protected area (MPA) targets: How the push for quantity over quality undermines sustainability and social justice. Journal of Environmental Management 124: 137-146.
- Leenhardt, P, B. Cazalet, B. Salvat, J. Claudet & F. Feral. 2013. The rise of large-scale marine protected areas: conservation or geopolitics? Ocean & Coastal Management 85, A: 112-118.
- Singleton, R.L. & C.M. Roberts. 2014. The contribution of very large marine protected areas to marine conservation: giant leaps or smoke and mirrors? Marine Pollution Bulletin 87: 7-10.
Dr Laura Jeffery is Lecturer in Social Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, and has research interests in island ecologies, human–environment relations, and the politics of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). She has recently published on WikiLeaks evidence in judicial review of the Chagos MPA, debates about environmental guardianship of the Chagos Archipelago, and ‘coconut chaos’ and the politics of restoration ecology.