Marine Protected Areas: Is Bigger Always Better?

The Great Barrier Reef - perhaps one of the most famous MPAs in the world. Reference:

The Great Barrier Reef – perhaps one of the most famous MPAs in the world.

Very Large Marine Protected Areas (VLMPAs) are becoming increasingly popular as they not only provide protection to a large area (over 100,000 km2), which pleases the scientific community, but are also allowing Governments to reach targets set out in the Convention on Biodiversity stating that 10% of the world’s oceans should be protected by 2020.The question now being asked is are these VLMPAs providing “effective” protection, or is bigger not necessarily better?


At a first glance VLMPAs sound like a dream come true: they cover an extensive area of the ocean often including a large range of species and multiple habitats. However, some in the scientific community are questioning whether a large number of smaller MPAs would actually be more beneficial to our oceans.

One argument put forward is that smaller MPAs can cover a wider range of habitat types than one VLMPA. This then provides insurance against a localized disaster destroying a protected habitat. Although this argument may be true for large MPAs, VLMPAs are a different matter. VLMPAs are so large that they often cover many different habitats and bio-physical areas and a localized disaster would have to be very large indeed to cover the entire VLMPA. The Deep Water Horizon oil spill, for example, affected an area of around 10,000 km2 which is considerably smaller than most VLMPAs.


As with most things, politics also plays a big part in designating MPAs. Governments always have targets to meet and fishermen need to be kept happy, as well as any community and commercial stakeholders. To keep everyone happy, the best solution has been found to be a VLMPA in a remote area far from any major human populations where a no-take zone will not affect any commercial fishing in the area. It’s true that the remoteness of these VLMPAs means that they are subject to fewer incursions and they are easier to implement than coastal MPAs, but are they really protecting the areas that need it most? Some scientists argue that VLMPAs are sacrificing quality for quantity.

So are VLMPAs better than coastal MPAs? Do they provide better protection for our marine wildlife? Yes and no. VLMPAs and coastal MPAs both have their advantages and disadvantages and we shouldn’t have to choose between them. Management plans for MPAs can be changed and adapted as we continue to learn more about how best to protect the areas that need protecting in our oceans. The most important thing is that our oceans need protecting, and whether its MPAs or VLMPAs, we know that we are moving forward and learning how to improve every step of the way.

Original paper: Singleton, R.L., Roberts, C.M. (2014). The Contribution Of Very Large Marine Protected Areas To Marine Conservation: Giant Leaps Or Smoke And Mirrors? Marine Pollution Bulletin, 87, 7-10.

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Jessica Hanney

I am a Marine Biology graduate currently working as a Science Technician at a College. I am also studying for a Masters degree in Earth Science with the Open University. I am very enthusiastic about all aspects of science, but am particularly interested in the marine environment and the effects that we have on it.

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