Marine Protected Areas 101: What is an MPA?


Photo by Sabine Jessen

Earlier this week, the Canadian Government announced a potential new marine protected area off the West Coast of Vancouver Island that would cover 140,000 km2, making it the largest ever proposed marine protected area on BC's coast. If implemented, this marine protected area would help move Canada significantly closer to its target of protecting at least 10% of our oceans by 2020.

With all this excitement surrounding marine protected areas (MPAs), it begs the question: What is an MPA? Have no fear, CPAWS-BC is here to guide you through the ABCs of MPAs and some of the issues that we are facing here in Canada.

Let’s start with the basics... What is an MPA?

While you may not have heard of MPAs specifically, chances are you can list a few examples, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia or the Galapagos Marine reserve.

Similar to a National or Provincial park on land, a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is an area of the ocean in which human activities are restricted in order to protect marine species and ecosystems.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) an MPA needs to be legislated, permanent, clearly defined geographically (it needs to have boundaries), and effectively managed.

“Legislated” means that a protected area is written into the law of the country. This makes it very hard to undo the protections and means that the management and conservation measures set out for the MPA must be enacted. Protections like fisheries closures are much easier to reverse and so provide less certainty.

Permanency is necessary for effective marine conservation. MPAs take a long time to work, especially for ecosystems that develop slowly like those located in the Arctic and Antarctic and for species that have a long lifespan like whales and rockfish. MPAs require year-round protection, not seasonal closures. While seasonal closures can help protect a species during a particular event (like whale breeding), seasonal closures are not a substitute to permanent MPAs that offer protection of animals’ food sources, migratory corridors, and habitats.

MPAs need to be geographically defined. In order to enforce an MPA’s regulations, there needs to be a clear understanding of its borders. You need to know whether you are inside or outside of the MPA to know if you are permitted to anchor your boat or fish there.

MPAs need to provide effective protection and need to be managed. All activities that affect the marine ecosystem, such as fishing or shipping traffic, need to be assessed. Activities found to pose a threat to the ecosystem should be prohibited or restricted.

There are a number of different types of marine protected areas that fall under the umbrella term “MPA”. Oceans Act MPAs, marine National Wildlife Areas, and National Marine Conservation Areas are all developed by different branches of government and each has a slightly different focus with different strengths and limitations. However, all three designations are considered to be marine protected areas.

Stay tuned for part 2 next week where we address the benefits of MPAs. 


Photos by Sabine Jessen