What is a Marine Protected Area or ‘MPA’? 

Simply put, a Marine Protected Area is like a national park in the ocean. Parts of our ocean that are protected by law to conserve marine wildlife – or more specifically; particular species, habitats or marine features. MPAs are a really important tool for conservation that countries around the world are using to help improve the health of our ocean. 

Unfortunately, on a global scale, ocean health is not doing so well. Lots of our ocean habitats are being damaged by human activities such as unsustainable and damaging fishing practices, mining (including in the deep sea), oil and gas exploration, and infrastructure projects, like developing coastlines and dredging at harbours and ports. Not to mention the added pressure climate change is placing on our ocean.

Gannets feed on fish along side a fishing net
Gannets and fishing net by Sibéal Regan

By creating MPAs it’s like we’re giving physiotherapy to the ocean. We’re allowing it to recover and heal from things that have damaged it, in the same way, we would rest our knees or elbows after injuring them playing sports. 

There are many different kinds of MPAs. Some are more beneficial to ocean health as they offer stricter environmental rules and regulations to protect the marine wildlife within them, these are sometimes called ‘fully protected’ or ‘no-take’ MPAs. Within a certain MPA, you might even have specific zones that are ‘no-take’, but fishing or other activities is allowed throughout the rest of the site.

In other MPAs, certain types of activities are allowed to happen as long as they are not damaging the habitat or species that they are trying to conserve. These are called ‘multi-use’ MPAs. However, because life in the ocean is so interconnected, and the animals and plants rely on a complex, multilayered food chain (called a food web) to survive, it’s best practice to use the ‘ecosystem or whole-site approach’ to MPAs.

The ecosystem approach or the whole-site approach means that rather than managing a single or a few species, habitats, or features within the MPA, you protect the entire MPA and everything that lives or occurs within it. This approach gives all species and habitats the best protection and opportunity to recover and thrive. 

Another way to think about this type of conservation is to imagine endangered birds living in a forest. By protecting the entire forest and everything in it, rather than just the birds, you protect the trees they live in, the food they eat, and the wider habitat they fly around in while they go about their daily lives. Therefore the birds have all they need to thrive and everything else that lives in the forest benefits from the protection too. 

The world’s first-ever ‘Marine Reserve’ (another kind of MPA) was created in New Zealand in the 1970s at Cape Rodney-Okakari Point.

Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve and Goat Island. Photo: helloauckland

It was discovered that the local ecosystem had become imbalanced. Where thick forests of brown seaweeds once stood, home to all kinds of sea creatures, a barren rocky bottom was all that remained. Sea urchin numbers had exploded because overfishing had removed too many of the urchin’s predators (rock lobster and Australian snapper) which traditionally kept the sea urchin populations in check. The Marine Reserve, or Marine Protected Area, included a no-take zone to give the lobster and snapper populations a chance to recover from overfishing. And guess what? It worked! 

The increased number of lobster and snapper within the reserve meant that the urchin population was being kept under control and the seaweed had a chance to regrow. This allowed the balance to be restored within the reserve and saw marine life returning to its waters. Local fishing communities even recorded higher catches in the waters outside the borders of the reserve. Studies also found that the reserve was acting as a spawning ground that was contributing to growing populations of commercial fish species for tens of kilometres around the coast.

A group of fish swimming . The fish are silver with blue spots.
Australian snapper. Photo: helloauckland

Clearly, MPAs are not a new thing and there is a tonne of evidence to show how they have worked to improve ocean health and benefit a range of different industries, not least the eco-tourism industry and coastal communities.

Why does Ireland need more Marine Protected Areas? 

Currently, MPAs only cover about 2% of Irish waters, with little to no management plans in place. Fair Seas is campaigning to ensure the Irish Government reaches its target of 30% MPA coverage by 2030. We also want to ensure that at least 10% of these MPAs are fully protected, to give our ocean life the best chance of recovery. 

We want to see a network of well managed MPAs created in Irish waters so that the benefits, like those seen in the New Zealand MPA, are carried throughout our waters for fish populations, ocean wildlife and coastal communities. 

False Bay, Mannin, Connemara.

 

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