Strong protection zones are the driving force behind the ecological effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Without them, MPAs can be useful, such as being a tool for spatial planning or consultation between different sea users, but they do not have a significant effect on biodiversity. However, the primary objective of an MPA is to maintain or restore the health of ecosystems; it contributes significantly to human well-being and plays a crucial role in the economic, social and political development of many countries.

Nearly 4% of the world’s oceans are covered by MPAs, but only 1.44% are under strong protection. In the Mediterranean, this gap is widening, as only 0.04% of the 7.14% of the area under the designation of MPAs or other effective conservation measures (OECMs)[1] correspond to strong protection zones where access, taking or fishing are prohibited, i.e. about 980 km2. Moreover, not all these areas benefit from adequate regulation or surveillance and even if such regulation exists, it is not always enforced.

With Aichi target 11 of the Convention for Biological Diversity, countries have committed themselves by 2020 to protect 10% of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) through a network of MPAs. This objective was initially based on the recognised benefits of MPAs in strong protection, in order to provide tangible ecological benefits. However, it must be noted that, in the race for designation in which many countries have engaged, many MPAs only exist on paper or are not effectively managed. They therefore do not provide ecological benefits or long-term socio-economic benefits.

A new classification of MPAs

A consortium of scientists (including Joachim Claudet of the CNRS and President of the Scientific Committee of MedPAN) has been working for several years on classification approaches for MPAs that adequately reflect their ecological effectiveness. Today, there are various interpretations of what the term ‘protection’ means: for some it is the designation of an MPA that is authoritative, for others it is the implementation of a management measure, or for others it is a measure of the effectiveness of protection. This lack of clarity undermines the achievement of real successes in marine conservation.

The need to define a common language led these scientists to establish a new global classification, published in 2016 in Marine Policy and now at the centre of the MPA guide which is being finalised: this classification makes it possible to classify MPAs by crossing their level of protection with their stage of progress, because it is through the effective application of appropriate regulations that anthropogenic pressure levels can be reduced. This classification is intended to be used to complement the IUCN classification by management objectives and governance type.

According to a decision tree established by the method, each MPA area is assigned a class based on the impact of the uses that are authorised within it. At the MPA level, an index is then defined by weighting the zone class by its area in relation to that of the MPA. Four classifications are derived from it:

  • Fully protected areas,
  • Highly protected areas,
  • Lightly protected areas,
  • Minimally protected areas

The full version of the MPA Guide provides a detailed and scientific list of expected conservation results for each level of protection. In short, significant conservation returns are expected in fully protected areas and few conservation returns are expected in minimally protected areas.

Fully and highly protected MPAs are expected to result in a greater abundance and size of previously harvested species, restoration of ecological interactions, habitat restoration, improved reproduction rate, and greater ecosystem resilience to pressures.

Fully and highly protected areas also provide reference areas for assessing the impacts of harvests outside, a buffer against accidental mismanagement or environmental change, and often some improvement in fisheries outside the MPA (spill over effect).

In particular, scientists have demonstrated that moderately protected areas can be ecologically effective, provided they are placed next to fully or highly protected areas for which the regulations are applied. See the article published on this subject by Zupan et al. 2018.

Evolution of institutional frameworks

Strong protection zones are therefore at the heart of the reflection to ensure the ecological and therefore socio-economic efficiency of MPAs. While the participants of the 2016 Forum of Mediterranean MPAs approved in the Tangier Declaration a target of 2% of the Mediterranean in no go no take no fishing areas, today an IUCN resolution in preparation for the World Conservation Congress in 2020 goes further. It stresses that 30% of MPAs should be classified as fully or strongly protected. Another resolution in preparation emphasises that the lowest levels will no longer be called MPAs. In parallel, if COP15 of the 2020 Convention for Biological Diversity in China adopts this classification, all countries would be invited to report this type of information.

France has recently announced that it will increase the share of MPAs in its EEZ to 30% by 2022 and the number of strong protection zones to 10%.

MedPAN takes action

It is a priority of the MedPAN network to support Mediterranean managers in their efforts to develop strong protection areas. An exchange visit on this theme took place from 24 to 26 April 2019 at the Cerbère-Banyuls Marine Reserve in France and in partnership with the Gulf of Lion Marine Natural Park. See the article dedicated to this visit. A supporting strategy with relevant communication tools is under development.

A special edition of the MedPAN scientific newsletter will soon be dedicated to this theme and will provide a much more exhaustive update on scientific advances.

Enforcement: a key to success

Finally, another extremely important initiative is underway. At the initiative of the Public Prosecutor of Marseille, a Mediterranean Conference (France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon) of magistrates on the environmental protection of the Mediterranean Sea (MPAs, protected species and habitats, air pollution, hydrocarbon pollution, ballast water and plastic pollution) was organised early July 2019 in Toulon, to discuss the harmonisation of standards, The MedPAN secretariat participated in a round table on MPAs, 2 MedPAN members, WWF France and the Corsican Environment Office, participated in a round table on protected species and habitats and 1 MedPAN partner participated in the round table on plastics.

The role of the judiciary is essential in the effectiveness of no-take zones. For the rules to be respected, sanctions must be established and enforced. The Prosecutor of Marseille, who works closely with the Calanques national Park, and previously with that of Port-Cros, has clearly understood this major issue. MedPAN is strongly mobilised to continue to cooperate with this initiative.

See the Blue Plan article on this conference

Other interesting resources on the subject:


[1] MedPAN et. al. 2016. The 2016 status of Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean : Main findings. Brochure MedPAN & UN Environment/MAP – SPA/RAC.