Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas

What are MPAs?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines a marine protected area as “any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment”.

Ireland has not yet legally defined what the term MPA means. We do however have two types of protected sites that would fit the IUCN’s definition, namely Special Areas of Conservation designated under the Habitats Directive and Special Protection Areas designated under the Birds Directive. These sites combined form the so-called Natura 2000 network, a Europe-wide network of sites that protect certain terrestrial and marine habitats and species. More info on these sites in Ireland can be found here.

There is a third type of European legislation which calls for the designation of MPAs in order to bring the marine environment to an overall good environmental status – the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. We can expect MPAs to be designated under this directive in Ireland over the next few years.

It is important to note that not all MPAs are created equal. They are spatial management measures used to protect certain habitats or species, which means that not all human activities are automatically excluded from any MPA. Only those activities that may be harmful to the particular protected habitat or species must be excluded from the site. Here are the six different MPA categories according to the IUCN that range from strict no-take zones (i.e. no fishing or other extractive acitivities) to multi-use sites that allow some extractive activities:

Category I – Protected area managed mainly for science or wilderness protection (Strict Nature Reserve/Wilderness Area);
Category II – Protected area managed mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation (National Park);
Category III – Protected area managed mainly for conservation of specific natural features (Natural Monument);
Category IV – Protected area managed mainly for conservation through management intervention (Habitat/Species Management Area);
Category V – Protected area managed mainly for landscape/seascape conservation and recreation (Protected Landscape/Seascape);
Category VI – Protected area managed mainly for the sustainable use of natural ecosystems (Managed Resource Protected Area).

A phosphorescent seapen (Pennatula phosphorea) extends out of the muddy seabed. Credit:

Scientists worldwide agree that a coherent network of MPAs under strict management is the best tool to combat environmental degradation caused by fishing and other extractive activities, as well as increase the resilience of marine habitats to better cope with other stressors (e.g. climate change, eutrophication).

International goals have therefore been set with the aim to safeguard precious ocean ecosystems for future generations. One such example is the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Aichi target 11:

‘By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal
and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and
ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically
representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascapes.’  

In the years that followed the signing of the CBD, some countries designated large chunks of their waters as MPAs. Unfortunately these were, and are still, far from being “effectively and equitably managed”. In Ireland, only 2.3% of marine waters are currently protected under the N2000 network with very few of these sites actually managed for nature conservation (see Ireland’s progress here). The result of this poor management means that many marine habitats are sadly declining. A large, coherent and connected network of MPAs with the right management is needed to reverse this trend.



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