Understanding and Using the MPA Guide

I took a social media class one time where the instructor said people are more likely to share your tweets if it includes a quote and a picture.

I’ve worked since 2008 to designate some of the largest marine protected areas (MPAs) in the United States and around the world.  Since my first day on the job, the global growth of marine protected areas has been exponential, expanding from less than one percent of the ocean when I started and slowly inching towards ten percent today. 

But not all marine protected areas are created the same. In my career I’ve advocated for some of the largest, most highly protected marine sanctuaries on the planet, including the Mariana Trench and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments in the US Pacific Territories.  But some protected areas are poorly designed and allow all sorts of damaging activities, from industrial fishing to deep sea mining, while others are poorly implemented, the oft-maligned "paper parks" that have strong rules and regulations that would lead to great outcomes, if only they had funding and staffing to put policy into practice. 

I’ve also been involved in efforts to set global targets for protecting the ocean. In 2016, I worked with several of my colleagues at The Pew Charitable Trusts to write, find co-sponsors for, negotiate, and deliver a resolution at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature calling for protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030.  One of the great strengths of this 30x30 goal is that it is easy to communicate and it has buy in at the highest political levels around the world, most recently agreed to as part of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework

But 30x30 has had shortcomings, and if you follow me on Twitter you are aware I have strong opinions about its equity and justice implications.  Another downside of these global goals, unfortunately, is that they can create a perverse incentive to achieve conservation victory by creative accounting. Our ability to achieve 30% is going to be greatly influenced by what is meant by “protected” or “conserved,” and when does something going from being “not protected” to “having an intention to protect,” to being “protected on the water.” Unfortunately, these definitions have been up to various interpretations in the past, but thanks to the work of scientists, managers, and others, we now have much more clarity on how to understand ocean protections. 

The MPA Guide: A framework to achieve global goals for the ocean” published in the journal Science in 2021. Written with 42 co-authors from 38 institutions across 6 continents, including myself, the MPA Guide is the Rosetta Stone for understanding marine protected areas. It provides an international framework for determining how much of the ocean is protected—something that is difficult to calculate now because of the lack of international consensus around what “protected” means for marine habitats – and establishes clear guidance on the conservation outcomes different types of protected areas can provide. Understanding these expected outcomes can help scientists, advocates, and policymakers make better decisions about how best to protect the ocean and safeguard the unique cultural traditions tied to the seas. 

That's me giving a presentation about Conservation Journeys in 2021

The MPA Guide is particularly helpful for articulating how conservation takes place over time.  Safeguarding ecosystems forever doesn’t happen overnight, but strong, enduring protections can happen over time. When I helped launch the Blue Nature Alliance in 2021, we described this process using the vocabulary of the MPA Guide as a “conservation journey,” recognizing that increasingly higher levels of protection, effective management, and sustainable financing are often achieved through a sequence of measured steps rather than all at once. 

Steven Mana'oakamai Johnson at Cornell University and I also used the MPA Guide to assess all of the MPAs in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the islands where we were born.  We found that taken all together, the MPAs in the region could be described as being large, having strong protections, and dedicated management -- but that any single MPA at best only had two of these characteristics.  The MPAs were either very large and well designed, but lacked management, or they had active management, but tended to be very small, and their level of protection varied.  These results can help policy makers more efficiently deploy resources and staffing to better design and manage existing and future protected areas.

The MPA Guide is going to be an essential tool for the field of ocean conservation as momentum builds towards maintaining a healthy ocean.  If you want to learn more, I encourage you to read the paper in Science, read this blog I penned with my Pew colleagues Matt Rand and Johnny Briggs back in 2021, and give a listen to this podcast Johnny and I recorded with Speak Up For Blue.


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