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The term “protected area” (PA) or “marine protected area” (MPA) can mean different things to different people, depending on the circumstances. The International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUCN) explained PA as:

“[a]n area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means.”


While quite broad, this definition captures the general idea that comes to mind when you hear the term. Below, I will discuss the common elements among areas protected under a variety of legal regimes, but first I will discuss the interaction between national and international

laws in this field.   



Practically all countries in the world, 192 to be exact, have signed the World Heritage Convention (WHC); whereas 169 countries have agreed to be bound by the Ramsar Convention. There are also other global conventions, programs (the Man and the Biosphere (MAB), for example), and regional agreements signed by countries that direct them to establish PA/MPAs. What does it mean to you and your organization? There is a good chance that your country has signed more than one of these agreements. While the obligations are often qualified and broadly worded, these are nevertheless binding commitments made by the states. And although there is no mechanism to enforce compliance in the traditional sense (think police and courts), these agreements could carry political influence at the national level. They provide a management framework and issue guidelines to help with implementation and could be a source of financial and technical support as well.


Where does this leave national laws? Well, they make the protective features of a PA/MPA enforceable. Thus, a management plan that restricts certain uses of a site registered under the WHC, for example, needs to be linked to national laws in order to make these restrictions enforceable through the national legal system. At the end of the day, it is the national laws that establish a PA/MPA and its management plan, regardless of the requirements found in international laws. This also means that an effective PA/MPA could be established locally or nationally without reference to any international conventions or program.  





A PA/MPA is established in order to achieve a specific objective or objectives. The wording of the objective(s) is very important because it will dictate the types of activities that will take place within the area. The major global programs dealing with PAs/MPAs have specific objectives that need to be met by the areas designated under their banner. Under the WHC, sites are managed to preserve features that give them outstanding universal value. Under the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar), the objective is to preserve ecological character or important ecological features of the designated site. While the MAB Programme requires its sites to promote human development while preserving the environment. It is possible to have one site that fits more than one of these objectives, and therefore listed under more than one program. Programs at national and regional levels also could be setting their own objectives.

Looking at the objectives of WHC, Ramsar, and MAB as examples, it is clear that they are very broad and offer little insight into activities that are allowed within each site. Depending on the circumstances, each objective can be achieved by different means, making it difficult to compare PA/MPAs even within the same program. To simplify the matter, IUCN developed six categories based on the objective(s) and the extent of human use of the area’s resources. A PA/MPA could fit more than one category.  These categories carry no legal weight but make it more convenient to compare management experiences and outcomes.



– Managed for scientific use and preservation of the natural, unmodified state;


– Managed for ecosystem protection and allows educational, scientific, and recreational uses;


– Managed for protection of a special natural or cultural feature;


 – Managed to ensure preservation of suitable habitat;


– Managed to preserve distinct features of an area developed through interaction of people and nature over time;


 – managed for sustainable use of natural resources.


Thus, an area that is designated as a Ramsar Site and categorized as a Category 6 should be managed with the objective of preserving its ecological character, while allowing certain sustainable use of resources, such as regulated fishing, for example. This brings us to the discussion of management plans that should explain how the set objectives will be achieved.


Management Plans


PA/MPAs should be managed based on a management plan that explains the site’s objective, as well steps that will be taken to achieve it. Ramsar and WHC published guidelines to help countries develop these plans. Some of the key component of a management plan include: site boundaries, management authority, legal measures for protection, stakeholder participation mechanism, accountability measures, communication and education strategy, and implementation budget. If PA/MPA is designated but a management plan is absent, it is necessary to look at the process that designated the site to determine what can be done to put a plan in place.


Monitoring and Reporting


Monitoring and reporting are two other elements often found in PA/MPA programs. Monitoring is needed to show whether management strategies are meeting the objectives. It can also provide data for scientific studies.


All PA/MPA programs ask for states to submit reports as part of their compliance mechanism with varying frequency and details. Often these national or regional reports are available online, as is the case with Ramsar and WHC. Reporting also can be done by the management authority to stakeholders and various levels of government. It may be helpful to review reports submitted to international bodies, as well as national stakeholders to understand objectives formulated by the management authority and compare them to the on-the-ground realities.  

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