Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) need better protection. Luckily, we have a strong team to do just that. Seas At Risk, together with France Nature Environnement in France, Sciaena in Portugal and Coastwatch & Irish Wildlife Trust in Ireland, are on a mission to make MPAs work in Europe. Every MPA needs to be more than a square on a map. Every MPA needs to be truly protected and managed.

MPAs are the most commonly used tool for protecting and restoring marine biodiversity worldwide. They can provide a safe place in the ocean, giving marine life the chance to recover and thrive. MPAs do not benefit marine life alone, but also humanity, in a variety of important ways:  

  • By allowing fish to recover and reproduce, MPAs can help small-scale neighbouring fishing communities.
  • MPAs are a cultural asset, providing educational and aesthetic value to local communities and occasional visitors. As such, they can attract non-impactful tourism activities, such as bird and whale-watching, diving and other recreational activities.
  • Habitats and species within MPAs can play a significant role in regulating climate and controlling biological and chemical processes at both the local and global scale.

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The good news is that MPAs are on the rise, with an almost ten-fold increase in MPA coverage globally since the 2000s. The most recent reports suggest that 7.59% of the world’s oceans are protected. In Europe, the numbers are even higher, with over 10% of European seas designated as MPAs. Does this mean that the EU has reached the target of the Convention of Biological Diversity to protect 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020? Not quite.

All that glitters is not gold. Not all MPAs work as they should. While there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for successful MPAs, there are some clear characteristics that make MPAs work: age, size, level of protection and enforcement. Even the smallest and youngest MPAs have benefits if they are well-managed and enforced, with strong regulations in place to stop harmful human activities. Without these elements, an MPA is simply a square on the map, a mere paper park. It is these paper parks that make the EU’s 10% coverage meaningless.  

Unfortunately, most MPAs worldwide still allow for a variety of extractive and destructive activities to occur within them.  Alarming news at the end of 2018 revealed that the intensity of commercial trawling is on average 40% higher in European MPAs than outside. Areas allowing for destructive practices, such as trawling, should not be considered protected, as they will not deliver on their conservation objectives.  

Currently, only 2% of the global ocean is covered with highly or fully protected MPAs, i.e. areas that eliminate extractive activities mostly, if not entirely. At EU level, this figure is even smaller: in 2015, it was estimated that only 0.5% of EU MPAs were no-take zones.

Thus, we remain far from the Convention of Biological Diversity target. We are also still far from achieving the goal of having clean and healthy EU seas by 2020, a target to which all EU countries are legally bound, under the Marine Directive. A coherent network of fully protected MPAs would bring us a lot closer to achieving these crucial goals.

On a positive note, there is still time to turn things around. We know how to transform paper parks into real MPAs that offer true protection, and we have the expertise to do so: Seas At Risk, together with our members and partners in Ireland (Coastwatch and Irish Wildlife Trust), Portugal (Sciaena) and France (France Nature Environment), are on a mission to make MPAs work at national and EU level.

Our joint project, which started in early 2019, aims to transform the paper parks in French, Portuguese and Irish waters into fully-managed MPAs, with regulations restricting impactful human activities such as fisheries. In order to achieve this objective, we are putting in place tailored national campaigns, with direct advocacy action to make sure MPAs are given appropriate attention on the political agenda. We will also organise awareness-raising activities to highlight the many benefits of fully functioning MPAs and the steps we need to take to reap those benefits. By working at both national and EU level, we hope to create momentum for bigger and better MPAs in European waters.  

Let’s make MPAs work!

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