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Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are geographically defined areas in the ocean that are designated for conservation as part of an ecosystem-based management (EBM) approach to protecting marine resources.

MPAs are demarcated by law and can include intertidal, sub-tidal, and pelagic environments. Within these environments, governance systems are implemented to protect the relevant body of water, bottom, marine/terrestrial flora and fauna and notable historical and cultural features.

There are many different types of MPAs, with protection measures that range from multiple-use (i.e. allowing some types of fishing or certain recreational activities) to ‘no-take’ (i.e. no extractive activities such as fishing, mining, drilling are allowed) or even 'no use' areas. Some MPAs restrict certain areas to one specific use (e.g., local fishing), according to the overall needs of a particular area.

As of 2010, there were approximately 6,800 MPAs around the globe (Toropova et al. 2010).

Global Extent of Marine Protected Areas

Features of Marine Protected Areas Worldwide

Great Barrier Reef Marine Protected Area Zoning

How Was It Measured?

The Ocean Health Index measures MPAs in two ways: (1) the percent of each country's EEZ designated as MPAs; (2) the percent of each country's coastal waters out to 3 nautical miles that is designated as MPAs.

The first is used for the Wild-Caught Fisheries sub-goal of Food Provision, Iconic Species sub-goal of Sense of Place, and both sub-goals of Biodiversity.  For these goals the reference point is for at least 10% of the EEZ to be protected as MPAs. 

The second is used for Artisanal Fishing Opportunities, Natural Products and Carbon Storage. The rationale for using a narrower area is that protecting nearshore ecosystems does more to sustain these goals than protecting open-ocean areas does. For these goals the reference point is for 30% of coastal waters out to 3 nautical miles to be protected as MPAs.

In both cases information on MPAs comes from the Protected Planet database maintained by the UN Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Additinal infromation from the Sea Around Us project is also used.

What Are The Impacts?


MPAs are increasingly recognized as an effective measure for protecting endangered species and ensuring marine biodiversity.

By offering protection from certain pressures, such as fishing, MPAs may allow species to better withstand pressures such as sea surface temperature (SST) rise and ocean acidification, resulting in greater overall marine health within designated areas.

Analysis of 124 temperate and tropical MPAs in 29 countries identified large increases in biomass (+446%) and densities (+166%) of organisms inside no-take protected areas, plus smaller increases of individual size (+28%) and species richness (+21%) compared to non-protected areas (Lester et al. 2009).   


Many MPAs encompass critical breeding grounds and nurseries for fish. Spillover from these growing populations can enhance fisheries surrounding MPA borders. The increased abundance and size of commercially important species provide a vital source of food (fish and shellfish) for human consumption.


MPAs provide and support a broad range of sustainable coastal livelihoods.

Increasing global MPA coverage to 30% of the ocean would accrue economic benefits of USD 490 billion to $920 billion by 2050 and would create between 150,000 and 180,000 new jobs in MPA management (Reuchlin-Hugenholtz and McKenzie (2015).

People whose livelihoods are directly tied to MPAs have a higher average income than people whose livelihoods are marine-based but not tied to the Marine Management Area (MMA) (Samonte-tan et al. 2010).

Protected breeding and nursery grounds within MPAs may increase populations of some commercially viable species (e.g., finfish and shellfish).

What Has Been Done?

The Marine Extractive Reserve of Corumbau (MERC) was created along the coast of Southern Bahia in Brazil in order to maintain commercially important fish populations that had diminished due to heavy fishing pressure. By establishing fishing regulations and no-take zones within the multiple-use reserve, the size and abundance of targeted fish stocks within the MERC and surrounding areas were significantly increased within a period of five years. 


Established in 1995, the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park in Baja, CA has seen a dramatic increase in biodiversity in the past fifteen years. By treating the entire park as a no-fishing zone, the size and diversity of important predatory fish have risen significantly, allowing for beneficial ecotourism in the area.


Get More Information

Protect Planet Ocean (PPO)

IPPO is an initiative by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme and World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), providing definitions, information, and resources regarding Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), marine reserves, and Marine World Heritage Sites. 

MissionBlue: Sylvia Earle Alliance (SEA)

This is a global partnership initiative aimed at restoring health and productivity to the ocean by inspiring public awareness and support of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Science-to-Action Partnership

This partnership was established to determine the progress of Marine Management Areas (MMAs) in regard to management goals when assessing successful MMAs.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)

A new report sponsored by WWF, Marine Protected Areas: Smart Investments in Ocean Health, written by Reuchlin-Hugenholtz and McKenzie (2015) documents the potential economic benefits that can be gained by designating 20 to 30% of the ocean as marine protected areas.


Alvarez-Filip, L., H. Reyes-Bonilla and L.E. Calderon-Aguilera. 2006. Community structure of fishes in Cabo Pulmo Reef, Gulf of California. Marine Ecology 27, 253–262.

Merino, G., F. Maynou  and J. Boncoeur. 2009. Bioeconomic model for a three-zone Marine Protected Area: a case study of Medes Islands (northwest Mediterranean). ICES J. Mar. Sci. 66, 147–154.

Phillips, A. and G. Kelleher. 1999. Guidelines for Marine Protected Areas. 127 (World Commission on Protected Areas). 

Roberts, C. M., J.A. Bohnsack, F. Gell et al. 2001. Effects of Marine Reserves on Adjacent Fisheries. Science 294, 1920–1923.

Samonte-Tan, G., J. Maté, D. Suman et al. 2010. Cross-node socioeconomic and governance assessments of MMAs. Marine Managed Area Science Technical Report. (Conservation International, Arlington, Virginia, USA).

Lester, S. et al. 2009. Biological effects within no-take marine reserves: a global synthesis’, Marine Ecology Progress Series 384(2): 33-46.  

Toropova, C., I. Meliane, D. Laffoley et al. (eds.) Global ocean protection: Present status and future possibilities. Brest, France: Agence des aires marines protégées. (IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

World Conservation Congress. 2008. Marine protected areas: Good for fish! Good for people? Summary. Proceedings from Alliance Workshop, October 2008.    

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