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Marine Protected Areas (MPA)

Globally applicable classification to conserve biodiversity and maintain productivity of the oceans

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IUCN and UNEP-WCMC (2010) The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) 15 October 2010. Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC


Marine Protected Area (MPA) is an umbrella term to describe a wide range of areas, important for marine conservation around the world. A global definition of MPAs was first adopted by the IUCN in 1988. Different definitions have been formulated since then by different countries to accommodate the issues of management approach and scale. Designation of MPAs and MPA networks is driven by a range of international, regional, and national obligations and initiatives. The CBD defines it as ‘an area within or adjacent to the marine environment, together with its overlying waters and associated flora, fauna, and historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by legislation or other effective means, including custom, with the effect that its marine and/or coastal biodiversity enjoys a higher level of protection than its surroundings’. The CBD uses the term Marine and Coastal Protected Areas (MCPAs) to emphasize that the designation applies to coastal areas or areas that cross the land/sea interface such as estuaries and marine salt marsh.


Supported by

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)


Year of creation


Global. There are more than 5,000 MPAs, covering about 0.8% of the ocean’s surface.



MPAs were historically established on an ad hoc basis at the national level. In 1988, the IUCN’s definition provided a centralized framework for the systematic establishment of MPAs. Since then, several MPAs along the lines of IUCN’s protected area categories have been identified in different country contexts. Many of the MPAs are assigned one or more IUCN Protected Areas categories. The Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on MCPAs of the CBD has set out the following scientific criteria for identifying and establishing MPAs and their network:

  • Area contains either unique, rare or endemic species, population or communities and/or distinct habitats or ecosystems and/or unusual geomorphological or oceanographic features;
  • Area of special importance for life-history stages of species and required for their population to survive and thrive;
  • Area containing habitat for the survival and recovery of endangered, threatened, declining species or area with significant assemblages of such species;
  • Area having a relatively high proportion of sensitive habitats or species that are functionally fragile or with slow recovery;
  • Area containing species, populations or communities with comparatively higher natural biological productivity;
  • Area contains comparatively higher diversity of ecosystems, habitats, communities, or species, or has higher genetic diversity;
  • Area with a comparatively higher degree of naturalness as a result of the lack of or low level of human-induced disturbance or degradation.


There are many different types of MPAs with the protection measures ranging from multiple-use to strict protection within ‘no-take zones’ or ‘highly protected marine reserves’. They represent examples of the seven categories of Protected Areas defined by IUCN (see factsheet on Protected areas for further information about the categories) and reflect the diverse range of purposes for which protected areas are declared. For example, MPAs may include fisheries reserves or ‘boxes’ where there may be seasonal closures or gear restrictions as part of a management regime for commercial fisheries. Alternatively, areas of archaeological interest, military exercise areas and safety zones around marine structures (such as oil platforms and offshore wind turbines) where access is restricted and which act as de facto reserves, may be the key driver.

MPAs are increasingly viewed as an important global management tool to address declines in marine biodiversity and fisheries. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 and the 5th World Parks Congress in 2003 called for establishment of a representative global network of marine protected areas by 2012. More recently, the 9th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD in 2008, urged Parties and other Governments to increase the effective protection and management of marine ecosystems. A dramatic rise was seen in the designation of MPAs following the WSSD 2012 targets.


Business relevance:

Legal and Compliance – Legal recognition and protection is likely to be present in these sites, although there are many areas important for marine conservation that are unprotected. Some MPAs are legally protected due to military interests. The protection of MPAs is also integrated into various policies and environmental safeguards of international financial institutions. These guidelines are regularly updated to incorporate recent developments in the field of conservation.

Biodiversity and scale – The MPAs are important areas of conservation of marine biodiversity and maintain productivity of oceans. The MPAs are site-scale units and are therefore highly relevant for mitigating and avoiding the risks of loss of marine biodiversity.

Socio-cultural- Recognition of traditional practices, cultural values, rights and involvement of local/indigenous communities in protection, use and management is one of the criteria for identification of the MPAs. In establishment of several MPAs, local communities’ rights to use and their role in management planning is emphasized.



Protected Planet is a tool for visualizing, mapping and contributing to information on protected areas. This includes information on the IUCN category where known. Protected Planet brings together spatial data, descriptive information and images from the World Database on Protected Areas, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), WikipediaTM, PanaramioTM, FlickrTM, and Google MapsTM.

The Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool for business provides a visualisation and GIS download tool for protected areas, including Important Bird Areas.



Kelleher, G. (1999). Guidelines for Marine Protected Areas. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2004). Technical Advice on the Establishment and Management of a National System of Marine and Coastal Protected Areas, SCBD, 40 pages
Spalding, M. D., Fish, L., Wood, L. J. 2008. Toward representative protection of the world’s coasts and oceans-progress, gaps, and opportunities. Conservation Letters,1 (5): 217-226



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