Ocean Insights

Marine Protected Areas: Recovery in Action

Our co-founders sail across the globe, capturing the realities facing our changing planet and advocating for its protection. But what does protection for our ocean actually look like?

One way we ensure our ocean’s recovery is through the creation of marine protected areas, or MPAs. These designated regions allow our ocean’s natural ecological processes to transpire by limiting human interference and regulating the activities that occur within that border.

What is a Marine Protected Area?

A “marine protected area” describes a region within a body of water with a clearly defined boundary, where the activities permitted are managed in a way that prioritizes the conservation of the ecosystem, a specific species, or an element of cultural significance. In our ocean specifically, when we grant regions the space they need to operate, they regain balance, and our ocean becomes better able to regulate itself, thus helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

An MPA is not a one-size-fits-all application. The goals, permitted activities, and enforcement of a particular marine protected area are specific to each one.

A large school of mobula rays
Credit: Cristina Mittermeier

What are the different MPA types?

Marine protected areas range in their levels of protection. Its title can differ from “marine reserve,” to “wildlife sanctuary,” “national park,” or other designations. Even within a single MPA, the level of protection may vary, with some zones allowing different activities than others– referred to as a “multiple-use” MPA. But every and all marine protected areas benefit habitat and ecosystem health.

The most effective, and therefore, the most restrictive marine protected area classification is a “highly and fully marine protected area,” a “marine reserve,” or a “no-take” MPA. This type prohibits the removal or destruction of marine resources in their entirety. The all-encompassing protection that these zones provide yields a tremendous response in our ocean’s health. But, because of their restrictiveness, marine reserves are rare. The success of such a designation is on full display in places like North America’s largest highly and fully marine protected area, Revillagigedo National Park, in Mexico. Since its inception five years ago, the region has seen an observable proliferation in biodiversity and abundance.

Other MPA types may allow scientific experimentation, recreational activities, sport fishing, or artisanal fishing. For example, if industrial fishing depletes a region, a marine protected area that completely restricts industrial fleets from harvesting would ensure that the fish stocks recover. But you may ask, how will this affect the local communities whose livelihood and culture are intertwined with the marine life of their region? This same MPA could still allow artisanal fishing, so the local community maintains their relationship with their coasts, and their catch availability increases congruently with the ecosystem’s health.

Another way a region can obtain protections is through Indigenous-led MPAs. In the case of Canada’s Kitasu Bay, the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nations people identified a decline in herring, halibut, crab, salmon, prawn, and abalone as a result of overfishing. To preserve the bay’s ecosystem balance, Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nations leadership took action and declared their ancestral land an Indigenous Marine Protected Area. While the region recovers from its prior depletion, the Kitasoo Xai’xais people have closed the bay to industrial and sport fishing.

A school of salmon in British Columbia
Credit: Cristina Mittermeier

Marine protected areas can span multiple nations’ waters in an MPA network, as well. Countries may choose to collaborate and situate MPAs that flow into one another. Often, an MPA network aims to protect important migratory species, like whales, whose presence positively impacts the areas they pass through. So, to ensure their safety from industrial ship strikes, for example, an MPA network would span multiple territories’ coastlines along a migratory route. In action, we look to Panama’s Coibas National Park in the Gulf of Chiriqu, which provides refuge for migratory species across 39 of the region’s islands. Within the protected area’s borders, essential habitats are safeguarded, allowing migratory sharks, whales, dolphins, and turtles to find refuge.

How does a marine protected area impact the ecosystem?

When we give our ocean the space it needs to recover, biodiversity, abundance, and balance all make a swift, triumphant return.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “monitoring studies from marine reserves have shown that biomass, the size and density of organisms and the richness or diversity of species all increase within marine reserves.” The ecosystem impact varies depending on the protection level and the habitat an MPA protects.

For example, if an MPA was created to safeguard a kelp ecosystem, the algae could better support the dense, biodiverse life that finds food and shelter within their forests. But additionally, a healthy kelp ecosystem provides immense support to our planet’s ability to naturally mitigate climate change with its carbon capture, nitrogen uptake, and coastal erosion protection. Bestowing protections to productive ecosystems like these extends benefits for our planet far beyond the protected area’s boundary.

A pinniped peaks through a dense kelp forest
Credit: Paul Nicklen

How do MPAs impact humanity?

A common concern that arises when discussing marine protected areas is their impact on the economy. If we restrict fishing, won’t we affect the livelihood of people who rely on the industry?

Actually, marine protected areas improve a fishery’s overall stability despite potentially limiting the size of the permitted fishing range. Industrial fishing may deplete fish stocks to the point where recovery year over year becomes impossible. The industrial fleet may move on and harvest more lively regions. However in their wake, they leave an ecosystem struggling to regain abundance, and a coastal community with a lacking supply of natural resources. With the introduction of a marine protected area, aquatic species are safeguarded inside an invisible boundary. Here, they can reproduce and flourish without the threat of overfishing—the revitalized, plentiful populations then venture beyond the designated safe region and into waters where fishing is authorized. According to a recent study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography examining the impact of a 147,000 km2 protected area, no net loss in industrial fishing yield was observed as a result of the MPA’s creation.

In addition, the biodiverse and lively waters cultivated by a marine protected area draw tourists to coastal communities, which, in turn, supports their local economic stability. And, by protecting habitats like mangroves, kelp, wetlands, and coral reefs, the natural first line of defense from coastal erosion and storms strengthens immensely – protecting neighboring communities from flooding.


In 2022, at the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Canada (COP15), leaders from roughly 190 nations agreed to protect 30% of our planet’s land and ocean by 2030 in an attempt to halt biodiversity loss. Our global community inches toward meeting this critical intervention, with few countries, like Panama, who have already surpassed this goal in their national waters!

Until March 4th, 2023, no legal framework was in place for protecting waters that fall outside national jurisdictions. However, considering that the high seas account for nearly two-thirds of the planet’s oceanic waters, the 30×30 goal would’ve been impossible to achieve without their inclusion. Luckily, after decades of grueling negotiations, leaders in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction finally reached an agreement that set plans in motion to effectively manage our global ocean commons. Prior to the treaty, the high seas were susceptible to extreme exploitation, but now, marine protected area establishment on the high seas is finally on the horizon!

As we continue to move toward establishing and expanding marine protected areas worldwide to reach the 30×30 goal, we witness our natural world’s immense resilience when we provide it space to thrive.

We traveled to Revillagigedo National Park off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, to document the remarkable recovery that highly and fully marine protected areas instigate. Watch the full video below.