Corals and scuba diver underwater

How to Plan a Marine Protected Area

Paper Reviewed:

Aburto, J. A., Gaymer, C. F., & Govan, H. (2020). A large-scale marine protected area for the sea of Rapa Nui: From ocean grabbing to legitimacy. Ocean & Coastal Management, 198, 105327.

An ambitious goal for marine conservation

10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.

That was the ambitious marine conservation target agreed on by the world’s nations at the Convention for Biological Diversity in 2010. Nations from across the globe agreed: marine conservation is crucial for supporting ecosystems and people, and a good way to get there is through protecting marine areas.So they settled on a goal to create marine protected areas, or MPAs, that cover 10% of the total area of the world’s oceans within the decade.

Global map of MPAs
MPAs are spread across the world’s oceans. (Image credit: IUCN)

We didn’t make the 10% goal— the most up-to-date estimates range between 6.4% and 8.8% coverage— but nevertheless, the past ten years have seen huge increases in MPA development.

This is good news, right? Protected areas carry a heap of potential benefits for environments and societies alike. There’s growing evidence that MPAs that are effectively designed and managed can help grow fish populations and protect fragile habitat, and that these ecosystem protections trickle up to support nearby human populations. But these benefits don’t come without tough trade-offs. MPAs are often associated with prohibiting activities like fishing within their borders. That can mean certain populations are burdened, not benefitted, by the development of an MPA.

As nations sprint to meet global MPA targets, are they able to bring people together to navigate these trade-offs? In a recent study, authors traced the history of the development of one particular, very large MPA to explore how local perspectives were included— or left out of— this process. Their work highlights the pitfalls and promises of this ocean conservation tool.

Corals and scuba diver underwater
Corals flourish in the Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park. (Image credit: Oceana, Eduardo Sorensen, Gobierno de Chile)

The case of Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui is an island far in the midst of the Pacific Ocean (you may know it by the name given to it by Dutch settlers, Easter Island). Rapa Nui was originally settled by Polynesian explorers, who inhabited the island for many generations before Western contact. Their descendants, the Rapanui people, still make their homes and livelihoods here. The islands have been part of the nation of Chile since annexation in the late 1800s.

In 2010, the Chilean government responded to international calls for marine conservation. They established a massive MPA, the Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park, in the waters of the Easter Island Ecoregion. This MPA was a major contribution to international MPA goals, and scientists and international NGOs applauded the decision. But not everyone was pleased.

Motu Motiro Hiva was established as a no-take marine reserve, meaning fishing was prohibited within its borders. Local Rapanui fishers protested this decision. While the Rapanui saw the need for ocean conservation— and in fact had perceived the loss of key ocean resources over the past decades— they felt they had been overlooked in the MPA-planning process, and that they were losing important access to fishing grounds without being allowed to have a voice in the proceedings. Not only that, they felt the indigenous Polynesian worldview was clashing with the Western worldview of mainland Chile.

Locals were already concerned about Chile’s MPA planning process. And that was only the first move in what would become a series of rocky developments.

Map of protected areas
Two MPAs surround Rapa Nui. (Image credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts)

A new MPA in Rapa Nui

At a world oceans conference in 2015, Chilean government officials announced the creation of a second marine reserve. This MPA would be even bigger than Motu Motiro Hiva.

In the five years between the first and second MPA designations, the Rapanui community had done a lot of organizing. Community members, fishing representatives, and environmental groups had created a working group, Consejo del Mar, to brainstorm and propose MPAs that would fit the community’s needs. They had met with international NGOs and the Chilean government to share these ideas. But over time, participants started to see the working group as bowing to NGO and government wishes. Participation dropped off, and local community members lost trust in the process.

So when the government announced a new MPA at the 2015 world ocean conference, the Rapanui community reacted strongly. Recognizing their protests, Chilean government officials made a series of visits to Rapa Nui in 2016. They organized meetings to hear local perspectives on the MPA plans. 

Fishing boats in a harbor
Artisanal fishing is an important part of Rapa Nui. (Image credit: Arthur Chapman, Flickr)

Changing the MPA-planning process

This was a turning point in Chile’s MPA planning process. Early on, the process was criticized for failing to hear the needs and concerns of the local communities most impacted by the MPA. Local protests revealed how important that oversight had been. In responding to the protests, government officials created more avenues for public involvement in making important MPA decisions.

In the end, the people of Rapa Nui— not the government officials and NGOs— voted on how they wanted the planning process for the new MPA to unfold. Through a referendum vote in 2017, they voiced their support for three key changes to the process. First: the planning and development of the MPA would continue. Second, it would be developed by a council of planners— including six Rapanui representatives, and five Chilean government representatives. And third, the MPA in question would be developed in a way that allowed Rapanui artisanal fishing to continue.

In 2018, the members of the council in charge of developing this MPA were selected, and their work on developing an MPA management plan continues today. With formal representation on the new governing council, hopefully Rapanui views will be a central part of protecting these valuable natural resources.

A new decade, a new conservation goal

As we close the book on 2020, the 10% MPA target is still unmet. That hasn’t stopped some conservation groups from calling for a new, expanded target— 30% of the ocean protected by 2030

But authors caution: hitting the number is not enough. The process of planning and developing these areas— with meaningful participation from the people who stand to be impacted by them— matters just as much in working towards a more sustainable ocean future.

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