How Much of the Ocean Is Really Protected?

Despite progress, the global community must do more to boost ocean health, paper shows

Ocean conservation

Worldwide, more than 15,600 marine protected areas cover more than 25 million square kilometers (almost 9.7 million square miles) of ocean, according to one source. But do those figures tell the whole story?

James Watt/NOAA

Our planet is home to wonderfully diverse natural habitats that support a huge range of life. But many of those places—and the species that rely on them—are under threat. Sufficiently protecting them requires a broad, multinational effort, which is why bodies such as the United Nations set conservation targets. While governments around the world have safeguarded large areas of land, most have been slower to create protected areas in the ocean. Two key targets for ocean protection—United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11—seek to effectively protect at least 10 percent of the ocean by 2020. So how are we doing against these targets? The answer is not so clear.

According to the UN's World Database on Protected Areas, which records marine protected areas (MPAs) submitted by countries, more than 15,600 MPAs protect more than 25 million square kilometers (almost 9.7 million square miles) of ocean. In other words, nearly 7 percent of the ocean, an area the size of North America, is under some kind of protection.

But how accurate are these figures? And how protected are those areas. “MPA” has become a catch-all term for the many forms of management applied to the ocean, but it means different things to different people. The classification system developed by the IUCN, which is also the most widely used, allows a broad scope of activities to occur within areas categorized as MPAs. These range from areas where visitation is restricted to places that allow sustainable resource use by indigenous peoples to zones that allow commercial fishing. Some governments have even allowed mining and industrial fishing in MPAs, although these activities would not meet the IUCN standard. 

Ocean conservation

Highly protected MPAs, like Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, where this photo was taken, are best for the health of the ocean and the most effective means of achieving global conservation targets set by the international community.

Lucy Trippett

A more conservative assessment of the global picture, by the Marine Conservation Institute and its Atlas of Marine Protection, shows only 3.66 percent of the ocean managed in true MPAs.

The difference between the two figures is likely due to the IUCN’s broad interpretation of what constitutes an MPA and a lack of nuance within progress reports submitted to the World Database on Protected Areas—factors which suggest that the Atlas of Marine Protection may be more accurate.

And in fact, that’s what several colleagues and I, along with expert co-authors, found when we explored the differences between the two numbers. We present and discuss those findings in a paper, “Recommendations to IUCN to Improve Marine Protected Area Classification and Reporting.”

This paper evaluates global targets and MPA definitions, reflects on progress, and highlights key recommendations for improving the application of the IUCN categories for MPAs and strengthening the IUCN’s existing framework. We argue that this, together with improved reporting standards, is essential to understanding, evaluating, and effectively communicating the ecological benefits of MPAs.

We also make the case, supported by numerous studies, that highly protected MPAs are best for the health of the ocean and the most effective means of achieving global conservation targets set by the international community.

With 2020 fast approaching, governments around the world should step up and create large MPAs with strong safeguards. Meeting the 10 percent target with gold-standard protected areas would be good news for the many species, including ours, that rely on a healthy ocean.

Johnny Briggs works on the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project’s efforts in the U.K., based in London.