MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) – Are they the solution they appear to be?

Home » Articles » MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) – Are they the solution they appear to be?

Article by Jacqueline Boivin with assistance from Lydia Teh.

Many organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Canada believe healthy oceans depend on a network of marine protected areas.[1]

The Globe and Mail states[2] “MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) are legally protected ocean sites intended to protect marine life such as fish, whales and seabirds as well as [unique] ocean features like underwater mountains and hydrothermal vents. Canada and other countries are using MPAs to pursue the “30-by-30″ target,[3] which calls for protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030.” The target was included in a major agreement reached at the COP15 United Nations biodiversity conference in December, 2023.[4]

In other countries such as the Netherlands, most of the marine protected areas are found in the Waddenzee Sea and North Sea, which are part of the Natura 2000 network. For further information see, “The Dutch Case: A Network of Marine Protected Areas.”[5] The goal of the Natura 2000 network is to maintain, and if necessary, restore a favourable conservation status for all naturally occurring species and habitats across all EU member states. This will be achieved by establishing protection for these natural habitats and wild flora and fauna (of Community Interest listed in Annex I and II of the European Habitats and Birds Directives).

The Natura 2000 network, among others, are part of the Dutch government’s measures to protect several key areas. Solving FCB Netherlands case study researchers[6] Solen Le Clec’h and Rob Alkemade, are working with the Wageningen University and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency to study these areas. They are taking an overall inventory of the existing biodiversity in these areas, and plan to expand their methods and models to the rest of Northwestern Europe. This also includes the incorporation of nature inclusive and circular farming practices. Please read more about this in the Solving FCB Netherlands Case study overview article.[7]

Mangroves underwater. Image credit: Adobe Stock.

An important ecosystem network that falls within MPAs, is mangrove networks. These networks are mostly found in the tropics and subtropical areas. Due to being at the intertidal interface, they provide a unique ability to capture ocean salinity and carbon and are also home to many unique fish and bird species, acting as a virtual underwater nursery.[8] The mangroves’ massive root systems are also efficient at dissipating wave energy.[9] Mangroves are also becoming more important for ecotourism.

In West Africa, establishing MPAs is important for protecting coastal waters that have been impacted by IUU fishing (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing). It has been proposed that MPAs may act to regulate these coastal waters and protect them from overfishing.[10] However, it is important to consider the impacts on people who are dependent on these coastal areas for their livelihoods when protecting them.[11]

In summary

The Netherlands MPAs, European Natura 2000 network, and mangrove national park reserves are examples of efforts to protect marine coastal areas including fish and bird species. Another goal is to re-purpose the economic viability of these areas to help the local human populations who depend on the resources found there.

However, as stated in at least one publication the designation of MPAs alone may not be sufficient. According to, “From Blue Food for Thought to Blue Food for Action,” written in March 2022 by R. Parmentier and K. Rigg (refer to pages 25 and 26), the designation of a marine protected area does not automatically mean species and habitats are protected. The article goes on to say that “the existence of insufficiently effective MPAs can thus be due to a lack of capacity by a country to enforce its own intentions or laws.”[12]

Dr. Lydia Teh, Research Associate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries (IOF) at UBC, also notes that MPA designation is also not sufficient without community support and participation in its co-managing. Therefore, it’s important to remember that the designation of an area as an MPA does not immediately translate into protection for that area, as other factors including socio-economic must be taken into consideration.

Why Mangroves are more than Just a Tree: Infographic by Jacqueline Boivin