To Protect and Conserve – the Mission of Marine Protected Areas

The mangrove forests of the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve have been cited by community members as important to wellbeing due to the protection from hurricane impacts. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Hameet Singh is 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. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

Marine protected areas have long been heralded as an important area-based management tool to combat ecological change, conserve natural resources, biological diversity, and historical and cultural facets of the landscape. The purpose of an MPA is to provide protection for “any defined area within or adjacent to the marine environment, together with its overlying waters and associated flora, fauna and historical and cultural features.”[1] It strives to diminish the risk of degradation to marine and coastal ecosystems by reducing pressure on fisheries and other related marine activities. This is achieved by limiting interference from human activities to varying degrees, dependent on the IUCN categories.[2] MPAs may also sometimes be set up to safeguard unique ecosystems or species habitats such as sponge glass corals or mangrove forests.

The benefits of MPAs are vast and diverse. They are known to “protect delicate ecosystems so that they remain productive and healthy, maintain areas of biodiversity and genetic variation within the flora and fauna populations, ensure that endangered, threatened, or rare species are protected…”.[3] MPAs are used as a “well-established conservation strategy, employed around the world to protect important marine species and ecosystems and support the recovery of declining populations”.[4] Lesser known, but equally important benefits of MPA establishment are its economic and social facets. MPAs implemented with allowable sustainable use of human activity can help to bolster local economies through fisheries spillover effects and ecotourism ventures. In communities where MPAs have been established for a longer period, they have become embedded in the local culture and community identity.

Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.
Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Fostering Biodiversity

In the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, the MPA where I was based in while doing my graduate research, the local community members that I interviewed repeatedly advocated the significant value that the reserve has brought to their towns. The communities are situated in a lagoon ecosystem, which is host to mangrove forests, in addition to other vegetative biomes. In fact, mangroves surround the coasts of the entire peninsula with a total area of 423,751 ha.[5] Interviewees frequently described the MPA as conserving the mangroves, which in turn safeguards the inland communities from hurricane and storm surges. This is particularly significant for the area, as it is considered a high-risk hurricane zone and situated in the trajectory of hurricanes originating from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.[6] This shows that the existence of the MPA has added to the physical resilience of the communities.

The biosphere and mangroves also provide ecological protection to its myriad of species residing in its core and buffer zones, including hawksbill and green sea turtles, Morelett’s crocodile and American crocodile, jaguar, bare-throated tiger heron, Caribbean spiny lobster, and Atlantic horseshoe crab. Avifauna in particular are of special concern in the ecosystem. The reserve is known as an “Important Bird Area” an internationally recognized standard for the conservation of bird populations.[7] Its strategic location and varied vegetative environments make it a key migratory stop for wintering waterfowl.[8]

Protection of species and habitat has also stabilized some of the previously declining fisheries in the region, which is significant as over 60% of the communities’ population relies on small-scale fishing as its primary source of income.[9] Literature repeatedly indicates that well-managed MPAs build the resilience of coastal communities through the spillover of fish, leading to benefits via increased catch.[10] Fishing is a way of life and comprises self-identity for many living in the communities of the reserve. Increases in the health of local fisheries is embedded in and contributes to the community’s culture and identity.

Supporting Local Communities​

In addition, the implementation of the MPA has brought significant revenue generation through investments in ecotourism. In Ria Lagartos, locals have leveraged the presence of the reserve by promoting ecotourism ventures. It has been used increasingly as a mechanism for alternative income generation and diversification of livelihoods. This has allowed locals to benefit and improve their wellbeing and socio-economic conditions through new employment opportunities and increased revenue. Fishers are doubling as tour guides, escorting sightseers to the mangrove forests, beaches, sinkholes and birdwatching areas.[11] There is a tourist cooperative established in all the communities of Ría Lagartos by cooperative fishers and other community members, including the women’s cooperative. The main attraction of the reserve are the species that inhabit it, particularly the American flamingo and Morelet’s crocodile. Animals such as these attract a multitude of tourists annually, who come to see the species in their natural habitat via birdwatching tours or night excursions.

The American flamingo in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Hameet Singh.
The American flamingo in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Finally, majority of the interviewees attributed the reserve as enhancing their community’s wellbeing, stating that its presence added to local pride and awareness of the marine environment. This in turn created a greater sense and encouragement to care and protect the local environment and a psychological feeling of comfort.

The establishment of an MPA can have a multitude of benefits for the local areas in which it exists, as well the overall global marine ecosystem as a whole. They are known as “biological successes” and safeguard marine species all throughout the food web, and also provide a slew of both economic and social benefits. When designed effectively, MPAs have the potential to conserve the marine environment and protect biodiversity, while simultaneously contributing positively to social and economic development.

What other benefits and success stories are supported by MPAs? Let us know in the comments below!

[1] CBD. (2003, March 3). MARINE AND COASTAL BIODIVERSITY: REVIEW, FURTHER ELABORATION AND REFINEMENT OF THE PROGRAMME OF WORK. Retrieved from CBD website: https://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/sbstta/sbstta-08/information/sbstta-08-inf-12-en.pdf

[2] IUCN (2020). Protected Area Categories. Retrieved from IUCN: https://www.iucn.org/theme/protected-areas/about/protected-area-categories

[3] Ginsburg, D. (2013). Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Mexico – the Actam Chuleb Example. Retrieved from Scientific American Blog Network website: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/investigating-the-effectiveness-of-marine-protected-areas-in-mexico-using-actam-chuleb-as-a-primary-example

[4] Jessen, S., Morgan, L. E., Bezaury-Creel, J. E., Barron, A., Govender, R., Pike, E. P., … Moffitt, R. A. (2017). Measuring MPAs in Continental North America: How Well Protected Are the Ocean Estates of Canada, Mexico, and the USA? Frontiers in Marine Science, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2017.00279

[5] Adame, M. F., Zaldívar‐Jimenez, A., Teutli, C., Caamal, J. P., Andueza, M. T., López‐Adame, H., … Herrera‐Silveira, J. A. (2013). Drivers of Mangrove Litterfall within a Karstic Region Affected by Frequent Hurricanes. Biotropica, 45(2), 147–154. https://doi.org/10.1111/btp.12000

[6] Audefroy, J. F., & Sánchez, B. N. C. (2017). Integrating local knowledge for climate change adaptation in Yucatán, Mexico. International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, 6(1), 228–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijsbe.2017.03.007

[7] BirdLife International. (2019). BirdLife Data Zone. Retrieved from http://datazone.birdlife.org/country/mexico

[8] SEMARNAT. (2016). Humedales de Ría Lagartos de gran importancia internacional. Retrieved from gob.mx website: http://www.gob.mx/semarnat/articulos/humedales-de-ria-lagartos-de-gran-importancia-internacional

Unlock the Potential of MPAs – Understanding Lessons Learned

Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Hameet Singh is 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. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

The ecological and economic wellbeing brought forth by marine protected areas (MPAs) have been extensively studied and supported by a multitude of case studies around the globe.[1] MPAs have been known to boost fisheries’ populations, enhance tourism and job opportunities,[2] and provide refuge for an array of marine life.[3]

However, the social and cultural implications of MPAs are less well-known or not given the same amount of consideration during establishment compared to their biophysical counterparts. There have been cases where the implementation of an MPA that does not include local participation or consultation in management impedes in livelihoods and cultural activities.[4] This lack of community engagement has been frequently cited as the reason behind MPA incompliance, undermining the very reasons for its establishment and also negating ecological benefits.[5] Social components are therefore one of the key determinants of MPA success and crucial to its longevity.

Strengthening Community-Government Ties

Engagement and consultation of local stakeholders in protected area planning, implementation and monitoring is an important precursor to its long-term success. Social acceptability, defined as “a measure of support towards a set of regulations, management tools or towards an organisation by an individual or a group of individuals based on geographic, social, economic or cultural criteria”[6], can greatly reinforce compliance and the effectiveness of a protected area as a mechanism for conservation.

During my work in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, many of the interviewees pointed to a gradual yet steady acceptance of the reserve’s regulations. When the reserve was first established, it came under scrutiny from local peoples for its lack of consultation in the design process.[7]

Information signboard for the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, depicting some of the regulations at the bottom Photo by Hameet Singh.
Information signboard for the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, depicting some of the regulations at the bottom Photo by Hameet Singh.

 Many of the people I spoke stated that at first, there was minimal communication with community members about the reserve’s regulations, with some having no idea that a protected area had been established within the vicinity of their community. As community-government relations bolstered, communication improved and opportunities for involvement became more abundant. Local peoples became more receptive to stewardship efforts in their communities, with many participating through non-profit organizations like PRONATURA[8] or Ninos y Crias (Kids and Chicks).[9] One respondent spoke to this changing and evolving relationship. saying “it was difficult at the beginning for people and the community to accept the reserve, but once people started to see the benefits of conservation, it was more accepted.” Survey results indicated that members are now generally aware of the reserve’s regulations and agree that it is being managed in a largely effective manner. 

However, it was also stated that some improvements are still warranted, as community members had grievances concerning the privatization of certain areas of the reserve while impeding community growth. They believed that “more participation from the community” would improve the reserve, and that a more thorough and rigorous consultation process would help to alleviate some of these concerns, further strengthening the bonds between the community and government.

Co-Managed Governance – The Path Forward

Co-management is an approach to natural resource management that facilitates, “the sharing of power and responsibility among local resource user communities and resource management agencies.”[10] It strives to merge state-based and local decision-making, ideally combining the advantages and disadvantages of each to create a more fortified governance framework.[11] This governance structure empowers communities to manage local resources by incorporating customary practices, institutions, and a variety of knowledge systems.[12] It can also help to rebuild trust and rapport between communities and government authorities and enhance conservation. Applied in a marine context, co-management is characterized by local peoples who take the lead on conservation and the stewardship of resources. When done correctly, “alternative schemes different to the traditional top-down approach, such as co-management of natural resources in MPAs, have been demonstrated to be a more effective way of dealing with the challenge of conserving marine biodiversity.”[13] MPAs established with strong local involvement have been found to be one of the most effective in meeting their ecological objectives.

When asked how to facilitate a more co-managed approach, community members of Ria Lagartos had suggestions such as implementing “more seminars or talks on how to get involved and protect and preserve our resources.” Increased local participation in the decision-making process of MPAs can contribute to a shift in otherwise negative points of view.[14] Incorporating local knowledge can help to bridge the gaps that are present under an exclusively state-led approach, as local peoples often have a more intimate relationship with their surrounding natural environment. This was evident in Ria Lagartos, with one interviewee stating that “I think the reserve would be better protected if the community members looked after it, as we live next to the reserve. We know how to take care of the reserve because we grew up with it.” Survey results also pointed to a largely positive belief regarding the integration of local inputs to improve reserve management. These opinions were supported with the park rangers that I spoke to, with one park rager saying, “No matter how small or big our park rangers team is, we will always be dependent on the participation of the community. People of the community currently help me because they have understood that the protection of natural resources is for their own benefit. Now when they see something odd, they notify me. Community members now pass on to others the information we (park rangers) gave them, and thankfully, when they see any kind of rule-breaking or irregularity towards flamingos, sea turtles, or mangroves, they immediately report it to us.”

Application to a Canadian Context

There are examples of co-managed MPAs in Canada as well. In conjunction with the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation, the Sgaan Kinglas/Bowie Seamount MPA and Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve in the Pacific Ocean have been established under a co-managed framework.[15] In the case of the former, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and management plan between the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada, represented by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been implemented. They delineate the adaptive co-managed approach of the MPA and the shared responsibilities of the parties involved to conserve and protect the ecological integrity of the region.[16] Similarly, the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve is the first of its kind, implementing the first land-sea-people management plan in Canada, providing “strategic direction on managing the natural and cultural resources of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site from mountain top to sea floor, for the next ten years.” The plan is grounded in Haida Law and provides zoning for both the land and sea.[18]

Furthermore, the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area, located on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, supports the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast and is collaboratively managed with the Government of Canada, Province of British Columbia, the Tlatlasikwala First Nation and the Quatsino First Nation.[19] 

Finally, Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam MPA of Canada’s Arctic Ocean is another collaborative effort between DFO, and the Inuvialuit First Nation, along with the Government of the Northwest Territories, industry and environmental non-government organizations.[20] The MPA’s management plan outlines guidance on co-management, monitoring and research related facets.

Co-managed governance through the involvement of local communities can greatly enhance the management effectiveness of marine natural resources. MPAs established through a co-managed approach provide a robust and sustainable defense against the deterioration of the marine environment.

[1] Strain et al. (2019). A global assessment of the direct and indirect benefits of marine protected areas for coral reef conservation. In Diversity and Distributions. (pp. 9-20). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ddi.12838

[2] Dixon. (1993). Economic benefits of marine protected areas. In Oceanus. https://go.gale.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA14795717&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=00298182&p=AONE&sw=w

[3] Rogers‐Bennett, L., & Pearse, J. S. (2001). Indirect benefits of marine protected areas for juvenile abalone. In Conservation Biology. (p. 642-647). https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2001.015003642.x         

[4] Bezaury-Creel, J. E. (2005). Protected areas and coastal and ocean management in México. In Ocean & Coastal Management, 48(11), (p. 1016–1046.)

[5] Gall, S. C., & Rodwell, L. D. (2016). Evaluating the social acceptability of Marine Protected Areas. Marine Policy, 65, 30–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2015.12.004

[6] Thomassin, A., White, C. S., Stead, S. S., & David, G. (2010). Social acceptability of a marine protected area: The case of Reunion Island. Ocean & Coastal Management, 53(4), 169–179. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2010.01.008

[7] Fraga, J. (2006). Local perspectives in conservation politics: The case of the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, Yucatán, México. Landscape and Urban Planning, 74(3), 285–295. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2004.09.008

[8] PRONATURA Mexico AC (2020). About Us. Retrieved from: http://www.pronatura.org.mx/quienes-somos.php *translated from Spanish

[9] Ninos & Crias (2012). About Us. Retrieved from: http://www.ninosycrias.org/quienes-somos. *translated from Spanish

[10] Kofinas, G. P. (2009). Adaptive Co-management in Social-Ecological Governance. In C. Folke, G. P. Kofinas, & F. S. Chapin (Eds.), Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship: Resilience-Based Natural Resource Management in a Changing World (pp. 77–101). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-73033-2_4

[11] Carlsson, L., & Berkes, F. (2005). Co-management: Concepts and methodological implications. Journal of Environmental Management, 75(1), 65–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2004.11.008

[12] Fabricius, C., & Collins, S. (2007). Community-based natural resource management: Governing the commons. Water Policy, 9(S2), 83–97. https://doi.org/10.2166/wp.2007.132

[13] López-Angarita, J., Moreno-Sánchez, R., Maldonado, J. H., & Sánchez, J. A. (2014). Evaluating Linked Social–Ecological Systems in Marine Protected Areas. Conservation Letters, 7(3), 241–252. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12063

[14] Pita, C., Pierce, G. J., Theodossiou, I., & Macpherson, K. (2011). An overview of commercial fishers’ attitudes towards marine protected areas. Hydrobiologia, 670(1), 289. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10750-011-0665-9

[15] Coastal First Nations (2020). What is a Marine Protected Area? Retrieved from: https://coastalfirstnations.ca/our-sea/what-is-a-marine-protected-area/

[16] DFO (2020). SGaan Kinghlas-Bowie Seamount Marine Protected Area. Retrieved from: https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/mpa-zpm/bowie-eng.html

[17] Parks Canada (2020). Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. Retrieved from: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/bc/gwaiihaanas/info/consultations

[18] Council of the Haida Nation Marine Planning Program (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://haidamarineplanning.com/initiatives/gwaii-haanas-land-sea-people-plan/

[19] Government of Canada (2018). Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/national-wildlife-areas/locations/scott-islands-marine.html#:~:text=The%20Scott%20Islands%20marine%20National,seabirds%20on%20the%20Pacific%20coast.

[20] DFO (2019). Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area (MPA). Retrieved from: https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/mpa-zpm/anguniaqvia-niqiqyuam/index-eng.html