What are Marine Protected Areas?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are designated areas of the ocean and coastal regions which are managed to protect marine ecosystems, habitats, and species while also enhancing local and regional fishing stocks, maintaining cultural values, and augmenting coastal community food and economic security. MPAs can cover a wide range of marine ecosystems ranging from kelp forests, ancient sponge reefs, and seagrass beds to open ocean waters. These areas can vary in size but are often large and encompass an array of plant and animal species.

Coastal view of the ocean from Rennel Sound, Haida Gwaii. This coastal region is part of a current Marine Protected Area. Photo credit: Jef on Adobe Stock

MPAs Protect Biodiversity

MPAs protect biodiversity through conservation efforts to prevent overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and destructive fishing practices. Therefore, they limit or prohibit activities such as fishing, harvesting marine organisms, anchoring boats, discharging wastewater or hazardous materials into the sea, and trawling within their boundaries.

MPAs also help maintain a healthy balance between human activities that involve using the ocean’s resources for economic gain, such as local fisheries, and the ecological needs of the environment. Today, with more than 15% of global waters having some form of marine protected area designation, they play an essential role in conserving marine environments worldwide.

According to the OECD,

“MPAs are . . . any defined area within or adjacent to the marine environment which has been reserved by legislation or other effective means so that its marine and/or coastal biodiversity enjoys a higher level of protection than its surroundings.”

MPA Network BC Northern Shelf defines an MPA as follows:

“A clearly defined geographical space recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”

What are MPA Networks?

MPAs give marine ecosystems the opportunity to recover and thrive. Moreover, the abundance created by MPAs spills over into nearby fishing grounds. This is how MPAs form the foundation of sustainable fisheries. Photo credit: Ocean Conservancy

A marine protected area network is a collection of individually delineated MPAs, the combination of which is more effective in protecting marine ecosystems than isolated MPAs. An MPA network amplifies the effectiveness of individual MPAs through connectivity, redundancy, and the replication of protected habitats.

Compared to stand-alone MPAs, MPA networks encompass a greater diversity of habitats and provide enhanced protection by shielding similar habitats and species across a spatial scale far exceeding that of a single MPA. A well-managed MPA network can protect a single species’ spawning sites, feeding grounds, and adult habitats, which a stand-alone MPA cannot do.

MPA Network BC Northern Shelf defines an MPA network as follows:

“A collection of individual marine protected areas that operates cooperatively and synergistically, at various spatial scales, and with a range of protection levels, in order to fulfill ecological aims more effectively and comprehensively than individual sites could alone.”

Strong scientific evidence illustrates that MPA Networks can reverse ecological decline and help rebuild thriving marine ecosystems and the coastal economies depending on them. The main advantage that a well-managed MPA network has over a single MPA is representativity, as networks include a full range of ecosystems, habitats, biodiversity, ecological processes, and environmental gradients.

A network of MPA's along the BC Coast.
Currently, Coastal First Nations, the Province of B.C., and the Government of Canada are working together to implement the Network Action Plan. This plan will see approximately 30% of the Great Bear Sea, which extends from Campbell River on Vancouver Island to the Dixon Entrance at the border of BC and Alaska, turned into the Great Bear Sea MPA Network. Photo credit: MPA Network

What Makes MPAs and MPA Networks Successful?

The most successful MPAs have comprehensive management plans that involve science-based assessments and proper enforcement by local governments to ensure compliance with regulations. The most successful MPAs also heavily involve local communities, as comprehensive management and enforcement are only possible with significant local involvement. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations,

“If an MPA is planned and implemented without involving the coastal communities and resource users concerned, and without considering their situations and needs, there is a risk of failure.”

Well-managed MPAs increase the overall health, productivity, and sustainability of ecosystems by creating permanent protection for fish, marine life, and animal habitat. Moreover, numerous studies show that well-managed MPAs enhance the economic well-being of coastal communities. However, this can only happen when marine resources are in the hands of local communities and not controlled by foreign money and large corporations, such as Canfisco.

On the B.C. Coast, this means ending the individual transfer quota (ITQ) system, which allows companies like Canfisco to purchase quotas from other fishermen, essentially giving them control of the fishery. This creates an uneven playing field for smaller owner-operators, who cannot afford to purchase quotas and rely on catching fish to make a living. The ITQ system also allows for industry consolidation, with larger companies like Canfisco acquiring more and more of the quotas, further squeezing out smaller players. Coastal communities thrive when an owner-operator system is in place. The environmental and economic goals of MPAs coincide with the needs of owner-operators and coastal communities and not with industrial fishing.

Through ownership of quota and fishing licenses, Canfisco is estimated to control around 80% of the supply of salmon and herring taken from B.C. waters. Photo credit: Modfos on Dreamstime

The Benefits of MPAs and MPA Networks

In addition to providing direct protection for species from exploitation by humans, MPAs can also provide other benefits, such as improved water quality due to reduced runoff into the sea from land-based sources; increased sediment retention, which leads to improved water clarity; increased fish biomass due to spawning aggregation sites being established; enhanced food security by providing sustainable fisheries yields; improved connectivity between ecosystems, which helps enhance genetic diversity; educational opportunities for students and scientists; and increased recreational opportunities for local communities.

Another critical benefit of MPAs and MPA networks is spillover. An OECD meta-analysis found that one of the main benefits of MPAs is the “transfer of benefits to fishing areas through adult spillover and larval export.” Studies have revealed that the increased catch rate of resident species in fishing grounds adjacent to MPAs can be as high as 245%. Due to the increase in fish biomass in MPAs, this increased catch is sustainable. A recent study on the world’s largest fully protected MPA, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, found that the catch rates for the migratory yellowfin tuna increased by 54% in adjacent fishing grounds. This finding reveals that MPAs also increase stock numbers of migratory fish, which is positive for B.C.’s salmon populations.

MPAs come in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of protection. The Great Bear Sea MPA Network will have a mix of protection levels. Photo credit: The MPA Guide

However, spillover benefits must go to coastal communities, not foreign interests and corporations. Therefore, one essential component of successful MPA networks is ensuring that coastal communities control marine resources. The result will be thriving, sustainable fisheries and thriving coastal communities.

How Do MPAs Work?

MPAs and MPA Networks use zones to help define specific areas for conservation. Existing MPAs often contain multiple zones, and individual zones will typically have specific conservation objectives (and associated management direction) that distinguishes them from adjacent zones.

Within the Great Bear Sea MPA Network, different MPAs come together to target specific habitats, grounds, and species that are found in their respective areas. For instance, the Rennell to Kitgoro Group of MPAs contains transient killer whale habitats of special importance, leatherback sea turtle important areas, seabird important areas, moulting grounds for sea ducks, nesting sites for black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemot breeding colonies, and more.

otters swimming among kelp in the water
The species found in the nearshore sites of the Rennell to Kitgoro group are significant to First Nations and coastal communities for cultural use and food security. These include, but are not limited to, nesting sites and foraging habitats for marine birds, harvesting of seaweeds and kelp, shellfish, giant Pacific octopus, marine invertebrates, and fish. Photo credit: Kieran Wood on Unsplash

Meanwhile, the Offshore Haida Gwaii MPA will look to protect – in addition to other habitats and areas – Celestial Reef and shelf hotspots, which consist not only of fish species like rockfish (Shortspine Thornyhead, Rougheye/Blackspotted, Darkblotched) or whale species like Northern Resident Killer Whales, Blue, Fin), but also corals and sponges.

These “hotspots” are diverse and each area has a unique grouping, but there are general principles that help planners identify what needs protecting. MPAs typically look for habitats that are critical to lifecycle stages such as spawning, juvenile rearing, and feeding, adjacent terrestrial areas for anadromous species like salmon, and more.

MPAs and the Future of British Columbia

MPAs can address pressing environmental and conservation challenges, while uplifting local communities and economies. The benefits of MPAs will be particularly important for BC’s waters, as the province’s diverse marine ecosystems are home to a wide range of marine species, many of which face threats from overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution, and climate change.

By establishing MPAs, BC can safeguard important spawning and nursery grounds, conserve fragile ecosystems, and promote sustainable fisheries, all while mitigating the impacts of human activities on marine life, ultimately contributing to the overall health and sustainability of its coastal and ocean ecosystems.

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