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The concept of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) has gained prominence in the dialogue on marine conservation and fishery management since the early 1990s.  A decade after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 (the 1982 UN Convention) was adopted, and two years before it entered into force, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) adopted Agenda 21 which urged coastal states to maintain biological diversity and productivity of marine species and habitats under national jurisdiction. This international instrument and others, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) encourage the use of protected areas or area-based closures. The international conference that truly placed MPAs at the top of the international agenda, was the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, 2002. The Plan of Implementation of the WSSD (the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation), focused attention on MPAs by calling on nations to promote the conservation and management of important and vulnerable marine and coastal areas including “…the establishment of marine protected areas consistent with international law and based on scientific information, including representative networks by 2012 ...” (Paragraph 32 [c]).

Fisheries-specific instruments have also mentioned the use of closed areas, seasons or zones. The 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries is one such document that addresses the use of spatial management measures. Many other regional agreements such as the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (SEAFO), and other regional fisheries management bodies, use spatial management measures for fisheries management purposes and the protection of marine biodiversity (see High Seas MPAs for more information).


What is an MPA?

There are several definitions of marine protected areas. In fisheries management, MPAs are generally considered temporally and geographically defined areas that afford natural resources greater protection than is afforded in the rest of an area as defined in relation to fisheries management (e.g. the fishery, ecosystem or zone constituting the management unit), i.e. a no-take area to protect spawning of a certain fish species targeted by a fishery or an area with specific gear prohibitions.

Other definitions include that of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

“A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” (WCPA, 2008)

The following definition has not been formally accepted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as a whole, but is used by the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Marine and Coastal Protected Areas:

“ ‘Marine and Coastal Protected Area’ means any confined 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.” (CBD, COP 7, Decision VII/5 (note 11))


What are the primary reasons for establishing MPAs?

Two of the primary reasons for establishing MPAs are for nature conservation and/or for fisheries management. The use of MPAs for conservation has increased along with the growing global recognition of the need to safeguard the marine environment. In fisheries, protected areas have a long history and predate the MPA concept by several decades. Measures such as area and time restrictions for protection of a component of a fish stock or community, e.g. adult spawning grounds or juvenile nursery areas, are considered types of MPA. With the increasing trend of applying an ecosystem based approach to fisheries, MPAs with broader combined objectives for ecosystem management are likely to become more common.


How do MPAs relate to spatial planning?

MPAs are an integral part of spatial management and represent tools used within larger frameworks such as integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), integrated ocean management (IOM) and marine spatial planning (MSP). These frameworks are place-based or area-based and apply to planning and managing human activities across sectors, generally intending to achieve multiple objectives. When used in the context of fisheries management, MPAs need to be considered in a larger spatial context and should be anchored within a broader fisheries or ecosystem management framework.


What is an MPA network?

A network of MPAs is a collection of MPAs that have a common purpose. Ideally, a network of MPAs should be designed as a synergistic system where the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. A potential benefit of a network of MPAs rather than a single (presumably larger) MPA, is that the network may be more resilient to a wide range of threats.

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