There is a growing campaign for more than 30 per cent of the planet’s ocean to be protected. Today less than seven per cent is and less than two per cent is covered by no-take zones
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are regions of the ocean set aside for long-term conservation. There are no official criteria, so the rules for each MPA vary.
Currently, only 6.35 per cent of the ocean is covered by MPAs. Even within these, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it) points to several issues – most importantly, the fact that few have enough resources to properly implement conservation and management measures.
Seven countries have established around 80 per cent of the total area of the world’s MPAs. The high seas, which cover more than half of the Earth’s surface, still lack a framework through which MPAs can be established.
Most MPAs are very small. While 72 per cent of global marine protected area lies within 36 large MPAs, 0.3 per cent lies within 11,374 very small MPAs.
Here are the current top 10 MPAs by overall size…
1) Ross Sea Region
2.04m sq km • High Seas • 9.3% global protected area
After years of protracted negotiations, the Ross Sea in Antarctica was designated an MPA on 1 December 2017, as agreed by 24 countries and the EU. Set for a duration of 35 years, the MPA is split into a no-take zone, where all fishing is prohibited, and two research zones, which allow limited fishing for research purposes. The Ross Sea and its shelf only comprise two per cent of the Southern Ocean, but they are home to 38 per cent of the world’s Adelie penguins, 30 per cent of its Antarctic petrels and around six per cent of the Antarctic minke whale population.
1.51m sq km • USA • 6.9% global protected area
A vast oceanic expanse in the North Pacific, this MPA includes a string of tiny islands, atolls and reefs known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In total, the protected landmasses span a distance equivalent to that from London to Reykjavík. The zone is split into two parts. The inner section, originally designated by US President George W Bush in 2006, has a strict no-take policy. The outer section was added in 2016 and allows limited activities, such as scientific research and native-Hawaiian practices. The MPA protects 22 endangered species, including the green sea turtle, Laysan duck and Hawaiian monk seal.
3) Natural Park of the Coral Sea
1.29m sq km • France, New Caledonia, Vanuata • 5.9% global protected area
Founded in 2014, this vast marine park includes the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering the barrier reef around the island of Grande Terre in New Caledonia in the South Pacific. The barrier reef is the third-longest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean. However, with limited resources, the French semiautonomous territory of New Caledonia has virtually no way of policing this vast area and the park has received criticism for being a ‘paper park’.
Protection vs targets
Currently, 6.35 per cent of the ocean is protected by some kind of MPA; however, only 1.89 per cent is covered by exclusively no-take MPAs, in which fishing is completely banned. This falls far short of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11. Signatories to the convention, which was signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, committed to 10 per cent MPA coverage by 2020. It falls even further from the recommendation made at the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 that at least 30 per cent no-take MPA coverage worldwide is needed.
4) Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
1.27m sq km • USA • 5.89% global protected area
The Pacific Remote Islands Monument area in the central Pacific Ocean sits to the south of the Papahānaumokuākea and encompasses seven islands and atolls: Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Island; Johnston, Wake, and Palmyra Atoll; and Kingman Reef stretched over a vast expanse of ocean. It was formed in 2006 by US President George Bush and enlarged by US President Barak Obama in 2014. The shallow reefs in this isolated zone support higher levels of coral diversity (180–190 species) than any other atoll or reef islands in the central Pacific. Beyond the shallow fringing reefs and terraces, the slopes of extinct volcanoes drop off sharply to the deep floor of the equatorial Pacific Ocean where strange and glorious creatures live at great depths.
5) South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands
1.21m sq km • UK • 5.5% global protected area
The MPA in the Southern Ocean covers an area five times larger than the UK and was set up by the British government in 2012 and enlarged in 2013 and 2019. Its no-take zones (NTZ), where all fishing activity is prohibited, cover 283,000 sq km and include the most biodiverse regions of the seabed including all coastal waters of less than 100m depth around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, as well as unique hydrothermal vent habitats and seamounts and trenches in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean at depths of more than 8,000m.
6) Coral Sea
989,821 sq km • Australia • 4.5% global protected area
The Coral Sea is a marginal sea off the northeast coast of Australia that includes the Great Barrier Reef and is one of the most diverse marine habitats on Earth. Every year, humpback whales migrate through the MPA from Antarctica and six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle can be found within its waters. Above water, these turtles, along with numerous seabirds, breed on isolated cays. Established in 2021 to protect biodiversity, the MPA is split into four different zones, the majority of which prohibit trawler and other industrial fishing methods. However, being within an MPA doesn’t protect ecosystems such as coral reefs from the wider impacts of climate change, and events such as mass coral bleaching are increasingly common.
7) Pitcairn Islands
832,694 sq km • UK • 3.8% global protected area
Established in 2016, the MPA covers the whole of the islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone in one of the most remote parts of the Pacific Ocean. The four volcanic islands – Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno – form the least populated jurisdiction in the world with just 47 residents (January 2020). The MPA is to protect some of the world’s most pristine ocean habitats from illegal fishing activities. A satellite ‘watchroom’ dubbed Project Eyes on the Seas has been established by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the Pew Charitable Trusts at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Harwell, Oxfordshire to monitor vessel activity and to gather the information needed to prosecute unauthorised trawling.
8) Tristan da Cunha
697,893 sq km • UK • 3.1% global protected area
Tristan da Cunha is a group of volcanic islands in the middle of the South Atlantic, lying approximately 2,787 km (1,732 miles) from Cape Town in South Africa, 2,437 km(1,514 miles) from and 4,002 km (2,487 miles) from the Falkland Islands. The MPA was set up by the British government in 2020 and is the largest no-take zone (NTR) in the Atlantic and the fourth largest on the planet. The move follows 20 years of conservation work by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
9) Terres Australes Francaises
660,026 sq km • French South Territories & High Seas • 3% global protected area
France designated the waters around the Crozet Islands and the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean an MPA in 2006. The islands are part of a disparate group of French uninhabited territories straddling a vast area from Madagascar down to Antarctica. The MPA was extended in 2017.
10) British Indian Ocean Territory (Chagos)
638,097 sq km • UK • 2.9% global protected area
This is one of the most controversial MPAs. The British authorities declared the waters around the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean an MPA in 2010. The local residents of the string of tiny islands which make up the archipelago had been forcibly evicted in the 1960s and the largest one, Diego Garcia, was leased to the US for a military base. The Chagossians, who have been fighting to return to their home ever since, consider the MPA as another method to block them. It is also disputed by Mauritius which claims sovereignty over the territory.
Data from IUCN and the Marine Conservation Institute’s Marine Protection Atlas