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Marine protected areas improve well-being in coastal communities

In December 2022, at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, nearly 200 countries took action in favor of marine protected areas. They pledged to protect at least 30 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems by 2030 in an initiative known as “30 by 30.” 

Although newly established marine protected areas (MPAs) are crucial for meeting these goals, little research has been conducted to investigate whether MPAs might also have an impact on achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those related to marine ecosystems, food security, and alleviating poverty.

Now, a team of scientists led by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) has found that protecting the oceans and providing food security and livelihoods for coastal communities do not have to be mutually exclusive. 

In fact, limiting human activity in various parts of the ocean can enhance the health of marine environments, while also increasing the well-being of coastal communities and thus achieving multiple sustainable development goals around the globe.

How the MPA research was conducted

The experts focused on the impacts of marine protected areas in the Mesoamerican Reef region, which lies within the Caribbean Sea, touching the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, and stretching almost 700 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula to the Honduran Bay Islands. 

The researchers examined a collection of data from multiple ecological and social organizations, including the Healthy Reefs Initiative’s data from monitoring reef fish, and datasets from the U.S. Agency for International Development. They analyzed factors such as income, food security, and malnutrition.

Results of the marine protected area study

The researchers not only found that MPAs with the most stringent fishing restrictions helped sustain fisheries, but also discovered a strong link between marine protections and elevated income and food security in nearby coastal communities.

“Our study provides evidence that MPAs in the Mesoamerican Reef region have the potential to benefit both people and nature at the same time,” said lead author Justin Nowakowski, a senior scientist at SERC. 

“Marine protected areas are hailed as a way to protect fisheries and ecosystems and promote well-being in coastal communities simultaneously,” added co-author Steve Canty, the coordinator of the Marine Conservation Lab at SERC.

“This is one of the first attempts to evaluate these benefits together. Our data critically shows that well-enforced, no-take zones help rebuild fish populations and that these zones are associated with higher well-being in nearby coastal communities.”

By calculating the presence of fish in terms of biomass – the total mass of the fish population in a specific area – the scientists found that MPAs with the highest protections had on average 27 percent more fish biomass than open-access zones without any restrictions.

Also, commercially valuable fish such as grouper were even more abundant, with up to 35 percent more biomass.

Moreover, the analysis revealed that, in terms of social benefits, the average wealth index was 33 percent higher in communities located near the best-protected MPAs. Also, young children living near MPAs were half as likely to suffer stunted growth (a key indicator of malnutrition).

Further research is needed 

“MPAs unquestionably help improve the health of reefs and fisheries and, in some cases, may positively impact the well-being of coastal communities,” said co-author Sara E. Bonilla-Anariba.

Bonilla-Anariba is a doctoral student in Rural Sociology at the Pennsylvania State University. “However, there is an ongoing debate about the factors influencing their positive outcomes.”

For instance, the study did not manage to reliably identify which groups benefited most from MPAs (e.g. fishing households or individuals who derived their income from other industries, such as tourism). Moreover, the impact of community-led MPAs is another aspect that needs further investigation. 

“There is still a lot that we don’t know about the interaction between marine protected areas, fisheries, and human well-being,” said co-author Nathan Bennett, the Global Oceans lead scientist for the World Wildlife Fund.

“How do marine protected areas affect other aspects of human well-being? What factors increase positive outcomes? How effective are coastal, community-led marine protected areas?”

Finally, since locations of MPAs are often biased toward areas with lower human pressure, future research should also take into account the potentially outsized role of location. 

“The goals of sustainably managing marine resources, increasing food security, and reducing poverty in local communities do not always lead to tradeoffs – these positive outcomes can occur in the same places. Under the right conditions, conservation interventions like MPAs may be central strategies for achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals,” concluded Nowakowski.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

More about marine protected areas

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are sections of the ocean that are legally protected and managed to preserve their biological diversity and natural and cultural resources.

The primary goal of these areas is to conserve and manage these delicate ecosystems and the species that inhabit them. This includes providing a habitat where species can thrive. Also, protecting cultural sites such as shipwrecks and archaeological finds.

MPAs can come in many forms. They range from small, highly protected areas that prohibit any kind of extraction or disturbance, to much larger zones that permit some sustainable uses.

MPAs can encompass beaches, coastlines, intertidal zones, estuaries, and the open ocean, and can even include areas of the deep sea.

Marine protected areas offer a range of benefits. They protect biodiversity by offering a refuge for endangered species, and by protecting habitats.

They also help support the overall health of the world’s oceans. This can have indirect benefits for humans too. For instance, healthy coral reefs and mangrove forests can act as buffers against storm surges and sea-level rise.

MPAs can also help sustain local economies. Many MPAs are important sites for tourism and recreation, and by protecting fish stocks, they can support sustainable fishing and maintain livelihoods over the long term. Research and education are other key activities that take place within MPAs.

Around 7.65% of the world’s oceans were covered by marine protected areas. However, scientists and conservationists were advocating for this to be increased to at least 30% by 2030 to safeguard marine biodiversity effectively.

The establishment and effective management of MPAs remain key components of global strategies to halt biodiversity loss and protect ecosystem services. However, it is also important to ensure that the creation and management of MPAs respect the rights and livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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