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Towards a Taxonomy of Marine Protected Areas

March 1, 2012

The application of the label “Marine Protected Area” has been haphazard, providing little rigor in identifying what is being protected, at what level, or why.  Globally, there are over 4,000 separate areas identified as MPAs.  This large number of areas labeled as MPAs implies a large amount of protection conferred to marine ecosystems, yet the application of a single label of “Marine Protected Area” encompasses a large range of protection levels and provides scant information on the contribution of any individual area to the conservation of biological diversity.  Large areas of coast line seemingly protected as an MPA may, in fact, offer little protection from biological degradation.

For example:

The 14 National Marine Sanctuaries in the U.S. are often thought to be the leading examples of the U.S. marine reserve system, but the protection they offer is largely only against oil and gas development.  Other MPAs restrict access to the general public but permit entry for management and scientific research (e.g. Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge [USA]).  Still others allow extraction but restrict particular methods, for example through designation of no-trawl zones where commercial or recreational fishing using other methods is still allowed.

This is a situation that was previously confronted in terrestrial protected areas:

The blanket application of an umbrella designation, which masks widely varying levels of protection for biological diversity, and a diversity of agency-specific designations, none of which precisely convey information about levels of protection, mirror the situation that evolved for terrestrial protected areas up through the 1970s. A panoply of designations (e.g., park, wilderness area, management area, and forest reserve) administered at different governmental levels (e.g., federal, state/provincial, and local) made it impossible to determine by designation alone what was being protected and to what extent.

To correct this limitation, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Gap Analysis Program (GAP) created a system to classify terrestrial protected areas throughout the U.S. based on the degree of permanence of protection and the priority and areal extent given to biological protection . This created a uniform, three-level system of classification of protected areas that transcends management agency and the specific nomenclature of designation. Similarly, in the early 1970s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) began the development of a system of manage- ment categories for protected areas that presently includes six categories and is applied widely throughout the world.

The authors provide a five-level classification system. More here.


Al-Abdulrazzak, D., & Trombulak, S. (2012). Classifying levels of protection in Marine Protected Areas Marine Policy, 36 (3), 576-582 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2011.08.011

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