Stories From the Coral Triangle

What are MPAs (and why you should care)?

You know National Parks. You may even be familiar with Reserves, and World Heritage Sites such as Komodo National Park in Indonesia. But what do Marine Protected Areas mean to you? If you’re drawing a blank, read on!

Simply put, a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is a protected area whose boundaries include some area of ocean. But dig a little deeper and things quickly get complicated. Some MPAs straddle land and sea. Others are hundreds of miles away from the closest land mass.

In many shapes and sizes

For some, MPAs mean a marine bank where fish stocks can recover (for fishing later). For others, these areas are a safety net to protect endangered species that are at great risk in the ocean.

In the Pacific, you will find MPAs that are locally owned and managed, with access to them regulated by traditional rules. In other places, they have been established through national decrees with little local consultation.

MPAs, elusive but badly needed

What these diverse MPAs share is a purpose to set aside, temporarily or indefinitely, a pocket of sea from direct, unregulated exploitation of its resources. And they come with many benefits (including to you):

  • Maintaining biodiversity (all these amazing underwater photos of marine tropical life? Right here)

  • Protecting important habitats from damage by destructive fishing practices and other human activities and allowing damaged areas to recover

  • Providing areas where fish are able to spawn and grow to their adult size (that’s how you can be sure to have a steady supply of wild-caught seafood in the years ahead)

  • Building resilience to protect against damaging external impacts, such as climate change (if you live close to the coast, you may appreciate this!)

  • Helping to maintain local cultures, economies, and livelihoods which are intricately linked to the marine environment

A sad reality

But the fact is that globally, only 1.2% of the world’s oceans are protected, and the vast majority of existing marine parks and reserves suffer from little or no effective management. This means they are often little more than ‘paper parks’ - they exist in official records but on the ground, there is little to show that the area is protected.

Marine park managers don’t have it easy. They must often juggle conflicting national and local priorities coming from a variety of sectors, such as industry, artisanal fishers, commercial fishers, tour operators, local town councils, farmers, and scientific researchers. This means that in most cases, park staff cannot adequately patrol marine reserves, carry out essential research, or implement effective conservation strategies.

Meanwhile, in the Coral Triangle

Studies have shown that in the Coral Triangle, the situation with MPAs is equally grim. But some ambitious goals are trying to change this around. The Coral Triangle Initiative, a government-led initiative to protect the Coral Triangle in collaboration with NGOs (such as WWF), aims to place 20% of each major marine and coastal habitat in the Coral Triangle under protected status by 2020. This vision involves linking together individual MPAs to form a connected, resilient and sustainably financed MPA system.

As this map illustrates, there is a lot of work to be done... 

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