Only one-third of the area within the 100 largest MPAs offers significant conservation benefits, according to research led by the Marine Conservation Institute.

Only one-third of the area within the 100 largest MPAs offers significant conservation benefits, according to research led by the Marine Conservation Institute.

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Governments falling short on marine protection pledges, says study

New analysis of the world’s largest 100 marine protected areas finds conservation efforts are undermined by implementation delays and failure to restrict harmful activities.

Delays in implementation, management problems and a failure to implement restrictions on "harmful" activities in protected areas: these are some of the critcisms levied at international governments by newly-published research on the effectiveness of marine protected areas (MPAs), led by US-based nonprofit ocean conservation organization, the Marine Conservation Institute (MCI).

The study, conducted by an international team of 11 researchers and published in the academic journal Conservation Letters, analysed the capacity of the world's 100 largest MPAs to deliver "positive biodiversity outcomes".

According to Protected Planet data, there are currently more than 18,000 MPAs, covering an area of approxmately 30 million square kilometers, or 8% of the ocean worldwide. Of this, the MCI study notes that the 100 largest MPAs account for 26.3 million km2, or about 7.3% of the planet's oceans.

"MPAs can deliver significant benefits to people, nature, and the planet, but unfortunately, we see vast gaps between the amount of ocean covered by MPAs and the strength of those protections in many cases,” said lead author, Beth Pike.

“Quality—not just quantity—should indicate progress toward reaching the goal of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030."

Delays in implementation, plus activities "incompatible with conservation" allowed in many MPAs

The study, which followed criteria outlined in "The MPA Guide" framework published in the journal Science in 2021, found a series of discrepancies in governments' handling of marine protected areas.

Researchers found that only one-third of the area within the 100 largest MPAs offers significant conservation benefits, while 25% of the designated MPA areas have not yet been implemented.

At the same time, over a third of the MPA areas allow "activities incompatible with conservation" such as large-scale commercial fishing.

According to the study, "Over 9.7 million square kilometers (or nearly 37%) of the studied area was found to allow highly destructive, industrial-scale activities that are not compatible with conservation."

The study also identified that most of the fully protected MPAs are located in isolated overseas territories, such as those designated by the United Kingdom and the United States.

Announcing the study's findings, the Marine Conservation Institute said that the "mismatch" between the goals behind MPAs and the reality on the water raises serious questions over the effectiveness of governments' implementation of these protections.

Unregulated MPAs risk "overestimation" of conservation impact, researchers warn

In particular, the study highlighted that including unregulated MPAs in protection statistics leads to an overestimation of their conservation impact.

"Prior to implementation, MPAs lack regulation and management, essentially making them no different from surrounding waters and unable to confer any conservation benefits," the Institute said in a press statement.

"Including these areas in the current tally of marine protection results in a misguided understanding of human impacts on the ocean and marine conservation progress," it added.

Instead, the authors propose that only MPAs that are implemented or actively managed, and that meet IUCN guidelines, should be counted towards global targets.

Additionally, the researchers argue that any MPA that allows industrial extraction should not be counted, and point out that the level of protection afforded by each MPA is an important indicator that should be part of global reporting.

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