By Hameet Singh and Rachel Goldstein

Hameet Singh and Rachel Goldstein are part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.

MPA Technical Report by Rachel Goldstein and Hameet Singh.
Click to read the full report.

After an MPA has been established, there is a myriad of tools that practitioners can employ in order to assess its effectiveness and success rate. They can also be used in the planning and development phases in delineating potential areas that are most viable wherein an MPA can be implemented. Incorporating these measures can provide a strong evaluation of existing MPAs, and also help define ecologically significant areas for future MPAs. Some of these include geographic information systems (GIS), marine spatial planning/zoning, remote sensing, satellite and aerial photography, radar imagery, acoustic data collection and mathematical modelling. Selected tools are described below in detail. 

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing is defined as the process of detecting a region’s physical characteristics through the measurement of reflected and emitted radiation from a satellite or aircraft (1). This technology has been employed to track the extent of forest fires, cloud cover for weather analysis, and most recently, mapping the topography of the ocean and its associated areas. It is this latter application that has been useful in the planning and monitoring of MPAs and the species and habitats that they safeguard. It has been advocated as a key tool in supporting the designation, mapping and monitoring protected areas and has proven to provide standardized and credible information on the long-term trends of ecosystem functionality on worldwide scales (2). For instance, remote sensing was instrumental in assessing the health of mangrove ecosystems in Kenya’s Kiunga MPA (3). In this case, the digitized information proved to be useful for creating accurate maps of mangrove vegetation cover, assessing species distribution and changes over time, and investigating linkages with other ecosystems. Remote sensing used in this study found that while certain mangrove species are less abundant than others and may require additional conservation efforts, the overall ecosystem had a high rate of productivity and regeneration.

Figure 1: Remote sensing imagery which can be using for marine spatial planning applications. Credit: Suryan et al

It is also theorized that as MPAs are increasingly situated in the open ocean, remote sensing will be instrumental in designating and monitoring large and expansive areas. Another study examined the existence of chlorophyll clusters (FCPI) from northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to Baja California, Mexico as an indication of phytoplankton production and seabird abundance, and to determine biological hotspots as potential sites for MPA implementation (4) (Figure 1). It has been found that monitoring primary production has a high probability to inform marine species distribution and in turn, improve MPA establishment (2). Overall, remote sensing has the potential to greatly decrease marine biodiversity losses and should be used as a tool to plan, implement and monitor MPAs. 

Geographic Information Systems

GIS is a software framework used to capture, collect, store and display spatial data related to the Earth’s surface (5). It incorporates various types of geographic data and visualizes it into maps and 3D-imaging, providing better insights and revealing patters and relationships (6). It has been used for urban planning, environmental impact analysis, navigation, natural disaster management, and most recently, in response to a global pandemic (7). In the realm of MPAs, GIS has been employed to evaluate their efficacy and ascertain if they indeed restore ecological and health.

Figure 2: Indigenous identification of features in the seascape, represented as layers in GIS. Credit: Aswani and Lauer

Applying GIS technology, a study in Hawaii found that fish biomass was 2.6 times greater in its MPA compared to unprotected areas and that apex predator species were observed to be more plentiful and larger in the MPAs, illustrating their effectiveness in conserving fish populations (8). Other research shows that GIS can be used to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, artisanal fishing and biophysical data to support MPA site selection and design (10) (Figure 2). This study showed that the combination of geospatial tools, fieldwork, and social and natural science methods can aid in the planning phases of an MPA. Use of GIS technology to map marine resources for marine conservation planning purposes is steadily growing as a useful resource.

Acoustic Data Collection

Acoustical oceanography is described as obtaining information concerning the ocean (physical, biological, geological, chemical, etc.) using acoustic measurements (10). In the simplest terms, certain instruments (hydrophones, etc.) are used to produce sound waves and transmit them into the water. The returning sound waves are then measured for parameters and used to obtain data (11). In other instances, a sample population of a species may be tagged with acoustic transmitters to better understand their behaviours, range and ecological niche (12) (Figure 3). In the context of MPAs, acoustic data collection has proven to be useful to understand the habitat uses of keystone species in order to better delineate the boundaries of an MPA. In a 2016 study, a larger and more encompassing MPA was adopted by the Seychelles government after researchers used acoustic analysis to determine the ocean space use of shark and sea turtle species.

Figure 3: Graphic depicting how marine acoustic tagging works Credit: GLATOS

A sample population of selected species was tagged with acoustic transmitters, which was used for marine habitat mapping and disclosed that certain species had a more extensive distribution and range than previously thought. Therefore, redefining MPA peripheries to better align with habitat use significantly increased the efficacy of the MPA. Acoustic technology has also been used to monitor the marine environment in Canada. In a study conducted at the SGaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount MPA near the coast of British Columbia, acoustic data revealed that vessel traffic in the region impacting ambient sound levels could have future implications for MPA management (13).


  1. USGS (n.d.). What is remote sensing and what is it used for? Retrieved from:
  2. Kachelriess, D., Wegmann, M., Gollock, M., & Pettorelli, N. (2014). The application of remote sensing for marine protected area management. Ecological Indicators, 36, 169-177.
  3. Kairo, J. G., Kivyatu, B., & Koedam, N. (2002). Application of remote sensing and GIS in the management of mangrove forests within and adjacent to Kiunga Marine Protected Area, Lamu, Kenya. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 4(2), 153-166.
  4. Oregon State University (2021). Remote sensing & biological hotspots. Retrieved from:
  5. National Geographic (2017). GIS (Geographic Information System). Retrieved from:
  6. ESRI (n.d.). What is GIS?. Retrieved from:
  7. Pratt, Monica for ESRI (2020). GIS Systems Lead Response to COVID-19. Retrieved from:
  8. Friedlander, A. M., Brown, E. K., & Monaco, M. E. (2007). Coupling ecology and GIS to evaluate efficacy of marine protected areas in Hawaii. Ecological Applications, 17(3), 715-730.
  9. Aswani, S., & Lauer, M. (2006). Incorporating fishermen’s local knowledge and behavior into geographical information systems (GIS) for designing marine protected areas in Oceania. Human Organization, 81-102.
  10. Acoustical Society of America (n.d.). Acoustical Oceanography. Retrieved from:
  11. NOAA (2015). Understanding Ocean Acoustics. Retrieve from:
  12. GLATOS (n.d.). Acoustic Telemetry. Retrieved from:
  13. Allen, A. S., Yurk, H., Vagle, S., Pilkington, J., & Canessa, R. (2018). The underwater acoustic environment at SGaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount Marine Protected Area: Characterizing vessel traffic and associated noise using satellite AIS and acoustic datasets. Marine pollution bulletin, 128, 82-88.
  14. Suryan, R. M., Santora, J. A., & Sydeman, W. J. (2012). New approach for using remotely sensed chlorophyll a to identify seabird hotspots. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 451, 213-225.

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