September - October 2020 (22:2)

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The future for MPA revenue will be challenging. MPAs were chronically underfunded even before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Now — amid COVID-related budget cuts, global recession, the collapse of most tourism, and other factors — many MPAs are in even worse shape. New and more sustainable revenue streams are sorely needed, more than ever.

Could blue carbon credits be one of those new revenue streams? Blue carbon is the capture and storage of carbon in coastal and ocean ecosystems, such as mangroves or seagrasses. Last month, in Part 1 of our coverage of carbon credits, MPA News profiled two MPA projects that are implementing blue carbon strategies as a source of revenue – the first MPAs to do so. Both projects are restoring mangrove forests and generating credits based on the tons of carbon those new forests have captured and stored. Then they sell those credits to global buyers who want to offset their own carbon emissions. This is a whole new way of monetizing MPAs. According to one of the projects (Tahiry Honko in Madagascar), the current demand for blue carbon credits may be as much as a thousand times greater than current supply.

Of course, not every MPA has coastal habitat suitable for restoring mangroves or seagrass. Could blue carbon still be an option for these other sites, including in offshore areas? Some people say yes: that fish and other marine wildlife are a source of carbon capture and storage as well — through their biomass, feces, deadfall, and other mechanisms. In short: the more fish an ecosystem contains, the more carbon is being captured and stored there. In this sense, MPAs could be viewed as an important management option for conserving, restoring, and enhancing fish carbon services. Theoretically, at least, the financial value of well-managed ‘fish carbon’ could be harnessed via carbon credits to support MPAs, similar to the mangrove projects.

Generating those credits may not be easy, however. For one thing, attempts to quantify fish species’ contributions to carbon capture and storage are just getting started. Without such knowledge, it is impossible to certify whether new carbon capture and storage have occurred among fish at a certain site, or in what amount. This makes it hard to place a market value on that carbon. There’s also the problem that fish tend to move around — between national jurisdictions, and into and out of protected areas — raising questions of who would have the right to market such credits if they were certified, and how these fish would be protected against harvest.

That being said, a recent study by the International Monetary Fund (described later in this article) estimated the value of a single living whale to be US $2 million, with most of that value deriving from its carbon services. If one whale is theoretically worth that much, effective MPAs with healthy fish populations could be sitting on a potentially substantial source of revenue, tied to conservation.

So, is there some way we could make this idea of fish carbon actually work? In this issue we speak with several experts on blue carbon about the possibilities.

Editor’s note: As we noted last month, MPA News recognizes that the concept of enabling polluters to offset their carbon emissions by purchasing carbon credits is controversial. Such a system allows polluters to keep polluting, so offsets are at best a transitional tool toward a low-carbon economy. And there is always a chance that carbon storage projects will fail, releasing their carbon right back to the atmosphere or ocean. A restored mangrove forest, for example, could be chopped down illegally and turned to charcoal — or, in the case of fish carbon, a thriving fish population in a no-take MPA could be poached. Furthermore, in order to produce blue carbon credits, other ecosystem services, like food production, may need to be foregone to some extent, which could lead to difficult tradeoffs.

However, carbon offsets are already part of various existing carbon-trading schemes, and will be included as part of the Paris Agreement’s approach to combating climate change. In the context of MPAs, they represent a novel approach to financing, and a way to monetize sites in a manner that rewards making ecosystems healthier and more productive.

The policy questions are tricky but not insurmountable

Steven Lutz (steven.lutz [at] is the Blue Carbon Programme Lead at GRID-Arendal, and is Managing Director of Blue Climate Solutions, a project of The Ocean Foundation. He has authored or co-authored several publications on blue carbon, including Fish Carbon: Exploring Marine Vertebrate Carbon Services.

MPA News: How would you characterize the current state of policy and science on fish carbon?

Steven Lutz: The concept, which we are now calling ‘oceanic blue carbon’, is beginning to be introduced into policy discussions, and there are some promising first steps:

  • In 2016, at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), whale carbon was introduced in support of a proposed Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, and a resolution was passed by 36 countries asking the IWC’s Scientific Committee to advance the understanding of how whale conservation may help mitigate climate change.
  • In 2017, Blue Climate Solutions and partners organized an Oceanic Blue Carbon Voluntary Commitment, which was endorsed by over 100 members of the scientific community and civil society. The UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species also adopted a resolution acknowledging whale carbon.
  • At the 2018 meeting of the IWC, whale carbon was introduced in support of a proposed South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, and 41 nations endorsed two resolutions that highlighted the potential role whales play in retaining carbon in the ocean and helping to reduce the effects of climate change. One resolution encouraged parties to “integrate the value of cetaceans’ ecological roles into local, regional and global organisations on biodiversity and environment, including climate change and conservation policies.”
  • In 2019, GRID-Arendal and Blue Climate Solutions undertook an oceanic blue carbon policy assessment for the United Arab Emirates, which will be released shortly, and in December 2019, whale carbon was presented at a side event at COP25 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The concept has also been advanced in support of high seas MPAs.
  • The concept was presented last month to the Group of Twenty (G20).
  • The recent interest shown by the International Monetary Fund in whale carbon has been a phenomenal help in attracting attention to the concept, and recognition is now growing that there are two types of blue carbon — both coastal and oceanic.

In terms of the science, much more research is needed to support robust, science-based oceanic blue carbon policy. Our knowledge around this topic is still nascent. Since 2016, there have been some publications that discuss different parts of the marine vertebrate carbon mechanisms and its potential relation to MPAs [see box “More reading on oceanic blue carbon” at the end of this article], but there are still no serious coordinated research efforts.

When we last talked in 2016, you said harnessing the financial value of oceanic blue carbon could benefit MPAs. If an MPA practitioner came to you and asked what steps they could take to start monetizing their fish carbon, what advice would you give them?

Lutz: To answer that question, we first need a scientific methodology for valuing oceanic blue carbon in MPAs. We need to connect the economists with marine scientists and ocean carbon modelers. Once such a valuation exists, then I imagine a financial model similar to the one used by the mangrove restoration projects described in your last issue could be possible. In other words, an MPA would use traditional conservation funds to support project development (including certification of carbon credits), and then sell the credits on the Voluntary Carbon Market to support the project’s long-term sustainability.

Most MPAs are not well-funded and, as a result, are not particularly effective. This could actually be an advantage in terms of oceanic blue carbon: it may give us a good case for evidencing the additionality potential of blue carbon offsetting in MPAs. Additionality is a core concept in carbon offsets: you need to be able to demonstrate that the carbon captured and stored through particular management activities would in fact be additional to what would have been captured and stored otherwise (i.e., without the sale of carbon credits).

For this reason, MPAs that are either new — especially in areas where degradation or unstainable fishing practices occur — or poorly funded and ineffective would have an easier time meeting the additionality requirement. Things get a bit trickier for MPAs that are already successfully protecting their coastal and marine ecosystems: they would have to demonstrate that conservation-based carbon sequestration would not occur without the additional finances from carbon offsetting.

It should also be noted that carbon offsetting is just one method for implementing blue carbon. For example, countries could include MPA blue carbon in their national greenhouse gas accounting, which is currently being explored by the UAEKenya, and other countries. In any case, developing a total economic valuation of all ecosystem benefits generated by an MPA — including carbon, biodiversity, food security, tourism, and more — could help justify additional resources being directed toward the sustainable management of MPAs.

How would MPAs handle the fact that fish tend to move, from one straddling jurisdiction to another?

Lutz: There is no doubt that transient fish populations could be tricky to manage in terms of jurisdiction. Who would own the carbon? And migration over time due to climate change may further complicate the matter. To some extent, these issues could be eased with ‘mobile MPAs’ and other dynamic, area-based management tools to protect biodiversity in a changing world. If an MPA’s boundaries follow the fish, that simplifies the carbon jurisdiction question.

Overall, I don’t think this issue is insurmountable. Currently, marine life is a commodity for extraction, which faces jurisdictional challenges of its own. Oceanic blue carbon proposes an alternative commodity for marine life, one that supports climate action. Once we can put a carbon value on keeping fish in the ocean, there will be an economic incentive for answering the tricky policy issues. At that point the question becomes, what sort of a market could there be for oceanic blue carbon offsets? Would people be willing to pay to save the whales and the planet at the same time?

Fish carbon is something to consider

Chris Stephenson (info [at] is Head of Operations for Plan Vivo Foundation, based in the UK. Plan Vivo is a third-party verifier of carbon credits, and among just a few verifiers that offer blue carbon methodologies, namely for mangroves and seagrass. Plan Vivo verifies the carbon credits generated by the mangrove restoration projects in Kenya and Madagascar.

MPA News: No fish carbon projects have been verified yet, and there is no methodology for doing so at this time. Would Plan Vivo consider certifying the credits from a fish carbon project?

Chris Stephenson: This would be something to consider if/when a project concept was submitted to Plan Vivo Foundation. We currently allow for innovative methodologies, provided that:

  • The methodology is considered scientifically robust and built on accepted, peer-reviewed models;
  • The project proponent can justify any assumptions made and uncertainties can be minimized to acceptable levels
  • The ‘land’ tenure and carbon rights are clearly defined and in line with a participatory, bottom-up approach
  • The project delivers benefits to local people in keeping with the ethos of the Plan Vivo Standard, generally located in developing or under-resourced countries and regions, that face challenges related to natural resource management, environmental degradation, or similar. 

Valuation has to be credible, reliable, and relatable

Ralph Chami (rchami [at] is an Assistant Director for the Institute for Capacity Development at the International Monetary Fund. In 2019, he and other economists published a report that estimated the value of the average great whale to be more than US $2 million, based primarily on carbon sequestration services, as well as other ecosystem benefits. In 2020, the same team estimated the value of great whales in Brazil’s waters at $82 billion. The current global stock of great whales would, by these calculations, be over $1 trillion.

MPA News: Your research on the value of great whales, and particularly their carbon services, is among the first real valuations of oceanic blue carbon. If an MPA manager came to you and asked what steps they could take to start monetizing their whale carbon, what advice would you give them? 

Ralph Chami: Valuation of marine ecosystem benefits is key to effective protection of MPAs. That valuation, however, has to be credible, reliable, and relatable. By relatable, I mean the natural asset that’s being valued has to be in people’s psyche. For example, we could have focused instead on the value of phytoplankton…but most people cannot relate to phytoplankton. In contrast, great whales capture people’s imagination, which helps us drive the message that a living nature is valuable.

Furthermore, valuation alone of ecosystem benefits is not enough. Policy is needed, too. Once a credible valuation is in place, policy can be designed to protect the ecosystems. In turn, that policy is accompanied by a system of penalties and incentives that are based on the valuation. The penalties signal government commitment to protection and conservation, while incentives attract the private sector and engender local ownership.

Then, once valuation and policy are in place, markets can be developed. The private sector can partner with the public sector to bring in much needed funding for MPAs to protect and enhance the ecosystems, generate employment for local communities, and create an ocean economy that helps to diversify the greater economy, as well as ensure sustainable and inclusive economic growth. My team is currently working with Fundación MERI in Chile to explore applying these ideas to that country’s marine environment [see box below]. 

What do you see as the main challenges faced by MPAs in generating revenue from whale carbon? 

Chami: The first challenge would be enacting laws that recognize whales as an asset that has rights and obligations. Once that is done, and valuation is in place, markets can be developed around it. 

Are you also valuing other types of blue carbon, in addition to whale carbon?

Chami: We also engaged in evaluating saltmarshes and some non-cetacean marine life. (In addition, on land, we evaluated elephants.) Our broader objective is to showcase the net benefits of a living ocean that is a renewable resource, rather than an ocean that is viewed as a depletable resource. Currently, fish has value only if it is dead and served on a plate. We have made the point that a living whale is far more valuable, at $2 million, than a dead one valued at $40,000 for its meat.

Chile and whale carbon

This year, Fundación MERI and Chile’s environment ministry launched The Blue BOAT Initiative, which is installing an early warning system in Chilean waters to prevent ship strikes of whales. Although similar monitoring systems exist elsewhere in the world, Chile may be unique in citing the value of whales’ carbon services as a primary reason to protect them. The initiative is informed by the whale valuation work of Ralph Chami and colleagues.

“The unprecedented aspect of this project is the possibility of changing the focus of public policy, and establishing not only an environmental value but also a social and economic value to the death or stranding of whales, and the associated ecosystemic damage,” says biologist Sonia Español-Jiménez of MERI. “We believe the economic valuation of whales in Chile is a step towards valuing all marine ecosystem services, in any country.”

For more information: Sonia Español-Jiménez, Fundación MERI. Email: sespanol [at]

Fish carbon won’t be a silver bullet for MPA financing

Dorothée Herr (dorothee.herr [at] is Manager for Oceans and Climate Change at the Global Marine and Polar Programme of IUCN. She has authored and co-authored multiple publications on blue carbon. She also manages the Blue Natural Capital Financing Facility, which supports the development of investable projects to protect and restore natural ecosystems to better support climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

MPA News: Within current policy frameworks, what are the main challenges facing potential implementation of fish carbon, including as a revenue source for MPAs? 

Dorothée Herr: We need to start with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which unites the world to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Parties recognize various means to do so across a suite of sectors — from energy, to transport, to land-use practices including forestry and wetland conservation and restoration. Parties are expected to report GHG sinks and sources from those actions within their national jurisdiction, or based on agreed ‘exchanges’ (trading/offsetting) with other countries, following approved methodologies and guidelines. Especially in the context of using nature for claiming emission reductions, it needs to be clear that these are additional, long-term reductions based on positive human interaction with and management of the ecosystem in question.

If our intent is to ensure that the world maintains a global, coherent, and harmonized reporting and accountability system, which results in swift and meaningful net emissions reductions, then any new activity or sector ought to be accepted as part of the UNFCCC processes. We cannot rely solely on voluntary markets — which are less coherent and less harmonized — for the world to get where it needs to be.

Carbon that is sequestered and/or released due to human management of marine vertebrates does not feature as an agreed activity or sector within the current UNFCCC. Moreover, there are indeed a few inherent barriers. To illustrate why certain sectors, activities, or ecosystems feature in the UNFCCC and others not, I take the following paragraph from the Howard et al. paper from 2017:

“Additional information will be required to inform the development or expansion of policy to include the carbon mitigation benefits found in marine ecosystems. For example, understanding community tenure rights, rights of use, and governance for an ecosystem or ecosystem component – as well as identifying which individuals, institutions, or governments are responsible for management, and who stands to gain from resulting climate benefits – are all critical for proper implementation of climate-related policies. Likewise, it is important to know who would be sanctioned for actions that result in carbon being released (e.g., deforestation of mangroves) and whether the ecosystem can be managed to secure existing carbon stocks.”

So leaving aside questions on whether fish and whales are indeed a significant, long-term carbon sink or not (What is their carbon sequestration rate? What are their current carbon stocks?), there are other issues such as:

  1. Straddling jurisdiction – which countries can claim the carbon from new fish/whale populations?
  2. Which methodologies should be used for the carbon accounting?
  3. Who would pay for the new conservation as well as the monitoring measures?
  4. How would any new set-up be aligned with the existing international fisheries agreements and the prevalence of illegal/unreported/unregulated fisheries?

How challenging would it be for the UNFCCC to be altered to include fish carbon as part of its processes?

Herr: To add a marine vertebrates sector or activity to the UNFCCC, all countries would have to agree to do so, and many technical, jurisdictional, and political questions would need to be resolved. Even under a favorable political climate, this could take years. In the current political climate, this would be even more difficult, and certainly by no means quick. I’m not sure we have the luxury of time. The news on tipping points that are already becoming apparent — like the rapid melting of ice sheets in Antarctica or Greenland — is heartbreaking and real.

Are there any specific scenarios in which you could imagine fish carbon being monetized today? For example, is there anything stopping an MPA from contracting privately with a local company to offset the company’s emissions via the MPA's fish carbon?

Herr: We need people thinking outside the box, finding solutions beyond the immediately possible. I don’t think there is anything stopping anyone from running their own fish or whale carbon crediting scheme. However, if the scheme is not embedded into any national or international scheme, I would doubt the credibility of the effort and the ‘big picture’ impact in relation to global climate mitigation. So I have trouble seeing how fish carbon can be monetized anytime soon, especially with all relevant safeguards, both from an environmental as well as social point of view.

This of course doesn’t resolve the need to find ways to fund marine protected areas, which remains a major challenge. There has never been a silver bullet for MPA financing, and fish carbon won’t be one either.

With efforts like the Blue Natural Capital Financing Facility, we are trying to identify and support project developers and start-ups on their path to becoming bankable, including one on MPAs. Nevertheless it is certainly a steep and challenging road to get there. We need to focus on trying to set the right priorities for swift and real nature conservation and climate action.

More reading on oceanic blue carbon

Steven Lutz recommends the following sources for more information on oceanic blue carbon and its potential links to fisheries policy and MPAs:

Blue carbon as a consideration in project design

Nicolas Pascal (npascal [at] is Executive Director and Co-Founder of Blue finance, which partners with governments, stakeholders, donors, and investors to develop joint partnerships and blended finance solutions for the collaborative management of MPAs. Blue finance is active in the Philippines, among other nations, and is considering the generation of blue carbon credits from mangroves in two of its MPA projects there. The credits would be part of revenue diversification for the sites.

MPA News: You provide an interesting case because you are currently considering whether or not to pursue blue carbon as a strategy at these two MPAs. What are the main factors you are considering?

Nicolas Pascal: One of the main challenges is the identification of mangrove sites with the best potential. Exacting requirements drastically reduce the number of locations where viable carbon credit mechanisms can be established. All of our projects go through a feasibility scoring matrix based on over 30 criteria (e.g, mangrove area, tenure, governance, threats, ongoing programmes, etc.). This matrix allows us to identify where trade-offs in the decision process can be made — for example, a site with a reduced mangrove area but a clear tenure and governance. Clear tenure and governance cover such things as property rights, user access rights, and, if protected, who is in charge of managing the area. 

MPA News: How many carbon credits would you aim to produce in the projects?

Pascal: As a general rule, we focus on projects with the potential for at least 60,000 metric tons of carbon credits per year. This would be approximately 100 hectares of mangroves under management.

MPA News: How will you choose which third-party verifier to certify the credits?

Pascal: We have the feeling the verification sector is still in the initial stages for blue carbon certification, and relevant standards are still very recent (e.g., Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard). We will follow the preferences of potential buyers of the offsets.  

MPA News: Do you believe that carbon credits — generated from mangroves or even from fish and whales — will eventually become a significant source of financial support for MPAs?

Pascal: I believe carbon credits are an interesting source of income for MPAs with mangroves under threat. It allows us to diversify the MPA revenue mechanisms and especially to provide alternatives to the classic tourism user fees. However, the criteria for a successful carbon credit project are strict and the potential to become a major source of income are limited.

Regarding other sources of carbon, we have to keep in mind the additionality factor. Carbon credits are paid only if we can prove the activities financed by the carbon credit (whether restoration or conservation) have avoided the release of carbon stock into the atmosphere. That is already a challenge for mangroves and seagrass to bring clear proof of additionality. This aspect would have to be addressed for fish or whales. 



Dear MPA News:

The July-August MPA News article on funding MPAs by selling blue carbon credits was excellent, including the case studies from Madagascar and Kenya. I follow blue carbon initiatives very closely, not least of all because blue carbon represents one of the 36 incentives to promote good MPA governance* yet is only rarely cited as being used or needed, despite all the interest in selling blue carbon credits.

One thing that strikes me is the extremely low prices that the voluntary carbon markets pay. The Mikoko Pamoja project in Kenya, which was profiled in your article, receives just US$12 per metric ton. While I recognize this is higher than the average price for forestry-related carbon offsets on the voluntary market (reported as being only $3.20 per metric ton), the EU emissions trading system price is currently at a high of $36 per metric ton, and even that is effectively undervalued. EDF highlights that:

“The current central estimate of the social cost of carbon is over $50 per ton in today's dollars. While this is the most robust and credible figure available, it does not yet include all of the widely recognized and accepted scientific and economic impacts of climate change. For that reason, many experts agree this is far lower than the true costs of carbon pollution.”

So whilst the pilot projects are very interesting and innovative, it is a worry that one is being offered only $12 per metric ton — just one-fourth of the estimated social cost of carbon, and even less if the accepted scientific and economic impacts of climate change are factored in.

This critically undermines not only the MPA financing aim of blue carbon schemes, but also the climate change mitigation potential. Offsets are being purchased at too cheap a price, which has costs to us all. This indicates that the blue carbon market needs to become a formal one, instead of an easily exploited voluntary market that yields insufficient funds for participating MPAs and enables emitters to buy carbon offsets at a grossly insufficient price.

The next phase of the blue carbon program must be to gain a more realistic price for blue carbon on formal markets, in order for it to become financially viable and environmentally meaningful from a climate change mitigation perspective.

Peter Jones, University College London. Email: P.J.Jones [at]

* The list of MPA governance incentives in the book Governing Marine Protected Areas: resilience through diversity ( includes:

Payments for ecosystem services: Direct payments for ecosystem services provided by an MPA through formal markets with open trading between buyers and sells — i.e., Blue Carbon payments as the marine equivalent of REDD+ payments.

Revision: On 9 October 2020, this letter was revised to reflect updated carbon credit sales figures for the Mikoko Pamoja project in 2019.


Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, MPA News is continuing to compile related resources for our readers. Here is our latest collection:

News media

Reset Sustainable Development Goals for a pandemic world (Nature) — COVID-19 is exposing the fragility of the goals adopted by the United Nations, two-thirds of which are now unlikely to be met.

Scientists Find Larger Fish, Clearer Water During Hanauma Bay Closure (Civil Beat): Scientists anticipate this MPA’s vacation from vacationers will bring a much-needed boost to its overall health.

As COVID-19 curbs patrols in Nicaragua, turtle eggs risk being poached (Mongabay) — Poaching in coastal protected areas has previously increased when Nicaragua’s political crises left the beaches unprotected.

Park rangers, the guardians of Ecuador’s biodiversity, face job insecurity (Mongabay): Ecuador’s environment ministry denies it has dismissed the country’s protected area rangers (including in the Galápagos Islands), saying that only the nature of their contracts has been changed.


BIOPAMA Rapid Response Grants to support protected areas (terrestrial and marine) facing the COVID-19 pandemic in African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries. The call is open until 31 December 2020. Maximum grant size is EUR 50k with no co-financing required.

Journal article

COVID‐19 and protected and conserved areas, PARKS, May 2020. Co-authored by 35 protected area practitioners, this essay suggests three potential scenarios for how the pandemic will impact protected areas and their role in society’s recovery:

  1. A return to normal;
  2. A global economic depression and decline in conservation; or
  3. A new and transformative relationship with nature – “the only sustainable pathway,” write the authors.

From The Skimmer (MPA News’ sister newsletter on sustainable ocean management)

How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting marine ecosystems, Part 1: Fisheries and aquaculture, The Skimmer, April 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic, Part 2: Perspectives on the future of coastal and marine tourism and its implications for coastal and marine ecosystems, The Skimmer, May-July 2020

More on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting coastal and marine tourism and usage, The Skimmer, August-September 2020

Prior MPA News articles

MPAs, COVID-19, and the coming financial crisis: What impacts are practitioners already seeing, and how are they responding?, MPA News, May 2020

“Donors have started to shift funding to address other urgent and essential needs”: An interview with Markus Knigge of Blue Action Fund, MPA News, June 2020

“We need to be talking about innovation”: Insights from the World Economic Forum panel on MPAs and COVID-19, MPA News, June 2020

More resources on MPAs and COVID-19: Management challenges - How sites are coping - Instituting new user policies, MPA News, July-August 2020


By Erich Hoyt

Editor’s note: Erich Hoyt is co-chair of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force with Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara.

For the past four years, a core group of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force has dedicated its time to launching a new tool leading to MPAs and other spatial conservation solutions. Called Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), this tool highlights areas that are important for one or more marine mammal species, and which have the potential to be managed for conservation.

IMMAs are modeled after Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) but with criteria specially tailored to marine mammal species. Marine mammals, of course, include 90 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises; 35 species of seals and sea lions; plus sea otters, manatees, the dugong, and the polar bear. These popular megafauna — champion swimmers and divers tethered to the surface by their need to breathe air — are ideal indicators of the biodiversity and health of the vast ocean.

Part of our job has been pulling together intensive week-long international workshops with groups of 20-40 scientists at a time, who bring their expertise and knowledge to the task of defining candidate IMMAs (cIMMAs) in a particular region. These cIMMAs are then formatted for an independent review panel. After a lot of back and forth, the panel approves some of the candidate sites as full IMMAs, and these are then placed on the IMMA e-Atlas. (The cIMMAs that lack sufficient evidence to support one or more IMMA criteria typically acquire the lesser status of Areas of Interest, or AoI, while a few may remain as cIMMAs if they are close to approval.)

In August 2020, the Task Force wrapped up the sixth regional workshop, which covered Australia, New Zealand, and the Southeast Indian Ocean. (The workshop was held in Perth in February, just before lockdown.) From 45 cIMMAs, following the independent review, 31 have now been approved as IMMAs for resident Australian and New Zealand species, many of them endemics or placed in one of the IUCN threatened categories.1 In addition to the Australia-New Zealand work, 13 IMMAs in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica also passed peer review in August.2

In total, 159 IMMAs now cover the e-Atlas across most of the southern hemisphere and parts of the northern hemisphere — equal to one-third of the global ocean. In addition, 24 areas remain as cIMMAs and 130 are listed as AoI. Both cIMMAs and AoI are useful for monitoring and conducting further research, potentially leading to their becoming future IMMAs.

Implementing IMMAs

The IMMA tool is worth little if it is not used. As of early 2020, the Task Force had received 78 requests for IMMA shapefiles and metadata, which hints at the potential conservation value to a wide range of users around the world, including governments, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, industry, the wider ocean-focused scientific community, and the general public.

We are pleased to report that IMMAs are already leading to conservation results:

  • The creation of IMMAs has helped shape MPA proposals in Vietnam and Bangladesh, e.g., contributing to the declaration in June 2019 of the Nijhum Dwip MPA and National Park in Bangladesh. The Task Force’s expert international scientists and the robustness of the IMMA process lent authority to those proposing the MPAs, giving both specific boundaries and attention to the species used for IMMA identification.
  • In November 2019, the Task Force co-chairs traveled to Mozambique to see the recently approved Bazaruto Archipelago to Inhambane Bay IMMA, and to talk to government officials and stakeholders. This IMMA is a biodiverse haven for the last viable East African population of dugong, as well as endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins and humpback whales. A South African energy and chemical company, SASOL Limited, held rights to explore and develop two ocean blocks in the middle of the IMMA. However, after our visit to Mozambique, and following media coverage and appeals to government and SASOL, the company returned the blocks to the government. We now hope that the Mozambique government will facilitate expansion of its existing Bazaruto Archipelago National Park to include the full IMMA.
  • In 2019, the US Navy adopted IMMAs as areas where low frequency sonar use would be curtailed to avoid killing vulnerable whale species. There is more information here.
  • The International Whaling Commission has agreed to use IMMAs and shipping traffic data to examine and address the threat to cetaceans from ship collisions.

In addition to the above, the Task Force has forged agreements with the UN Convention on Migratory Species and Convention on Biological Diversity — and held discussions with the International Maritime Organization — to utilize IMMAs in conservation planning.

Future plans for IMMAs

Under our current arrangement as part of the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI-IKI project), our Task Force has one more IMMA workshop region to examine, covering the southeastern temperate to tropical Pacific, from Mexico to Chile. That workshop has been postponed due to COVID-19 but we hope to hold it in Costa Rica in 2021. We are now raising additional funds to map the 10 regions across the northern hemisphere plus the South Atlantic. We hope to accomplish this in the next five years, conferring a 10-year cycle to the entire IMMA identification process.

It will then be necessary to return and update regions as marine mammal research continues to expand into new areas, particularly on the high seas. We are hopeful that new techniques for studying areas beyond national jurisdiction — satellite identification of whales, wave gliders that can listen remotely to marine mammals, and remote passive acoustic recorders, among other devices — can greatly add to our knowledge of which areas are important for marine mammals, and to provide indicators for biodiversity conservation.


1 The Australia-New Zealand work and most of the previous regional efforts were sponsored by the German International Climate Initiative (IKI) through the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI).

2 The Southern Ocean work around Antarctica was sponsored largely by the French Biodiversity Agency through the IUCN Global and Polar Marine Programme.

For more information: Erich Hoyt, IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force. Email: erich.hoyt [at] (Co-Chair: Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara. Email: disciara [at] Web:; Twitter: @erichhoyt and @mmpatf

The official IMMA brochure is downloadable here. A recent scientific paper on the role of scientists as advocates in IMMA and MPA processes is here.


UN report card: 10% MPA coverage target is not met yet, but could be by year’s end

In 2010, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity set a series of 20 targets — the Aichi Biodiversity Targets — to protect global biodiversity by 2020, including a target for 10% MPA coverage (Target 11). Now that 2020 is nearly over, the UN has released a final report card on progress toward the targets, and the main takeaway is that none of them has been met completely, including Target 11. However, the 10% MPA coverage figure may be met by the end of this year.

Aichi Target 11 requires that by 2020 "at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.”

The UN report card states that, as of August 2020, 7.5% of the world’s marine area was in MPAs — including 17.2% of marine areas within national jurisdiction, and 1.2% of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. These data are from the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), managed by the UN Environment Programme. (An alternative database on MPAs, the Marine Protection Atlas, notes that only 2.6% of the global ocean is in fully or highly protected zones.)

The UN report card notes the WDPA figures do not yet include many areas that could qualify as other effective area-based conservation measures, which are mentioned in Target 11. OECMs are geographic areas not formally defined as protected areas, but governed or managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained outcomes for biodiversity conservation. Once OECMs are more fully included in the database, the coverage figure under Target 11 will be higher.

The WDPA also does not include national commitments to designate future MPAs. “Specific commitments made by countries for new or expanded protected areas amount to…over 12.5 million km2 in the oceans,” states the report. “If these commitments are fulfilled, coverage would exceed 10% of the global ocean by the end of 2020.”

Other parts of Target 11 may not be met by year’s end, like the requirements for effective and equitable management, or that the global MPA system be ecologically representative. The report notes that just 9% of countries have assessed half or more of their protected areas for management effectiveness. And of the world’s 232 marine ecoregions, less than half (46.1%) have at least 10% of their area in MPAs.

The report concludes that challenges to reaching Target 11 have included:

  • A bias toward creating protected areas in remote areas rather than on making them ecologically representative and covering areas of importance for biodiversity
  • Limited recognition of the ecosystem approach in protected areas management
  • Limited management effectiveness, and the lack of management effectiveness assessment systems
  • Limited coordination among national agencies
  • The lack of protected area management and development plans
  • Limited monitoring and surveillance systems
  • A lack of financial and human resources

Russia designates strict MPA to protect polar bears

In July, the Government of the Russian Federation designated the 8155-km2 Bear Islands national marine nature reserve in the East Siberian Sea. The new MPA comprises the uninhabited Medvedzhyi Islands archipelago, surrounding waters, and nearby mainland tundra, and provides critical birthing and denning habitat for polar bears. An average of 26 bears are born per year in the area.

Like Russia’s other strict nature reserves — called zapovedniks (zap-o-VED-niks) — the site will allow no human activity. A zapovednik is the strictest conservation measure under Russian law. The marine portion of the Bear Islands zapovednik covers 4679 km2 and was not previously protected. The terrestrial parts of the zapovednik were previously included in a regional protected area, with less strict protection.

The waters are also home to bearded and ringed seals, and visited by beluga whales, walruses, sea lions, and many seabird species. In addition, the waters provide nursery habitat for Arctic fish species. “The establishment of the nature reserve around the archipelago will help us not only protect its unique ecosystems but also come closer to the global environmental goal of giving 10 percent of marine areas conservation status,” said Dmitry Gorshkov, Director of WWF-Russia. Including the new MPA, 2.43% of Russian waters are now considered protected. 

A WWF-Russia press release on the new MPA is here. The Government’s official designation document (in Russian) is here.

Belize expands MPA to seven times previous size

In August, Belize expanded its existing Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve to seven times its original size. Located off the country’s southeastern coast, the expanded MPA now covers 1300 km2, of which roughly 900 km2 is strictly protected. The MPA encompasses the Corona Reef complex, considered one of the healthiest coral reef systems in the Caribbean, with 60% live coral cover.

The expansion increases Belize’s national MPA coverage to 12% of its waters. An EDF press release on the expansion is here. Media coverage is here.

Scotland designates 100,000-km2 MPA

In late September, Scotland designated a 100,000-km2 MPA in deep waters off its west coast — the West of Scotland Marine Protected Area. It is the largest MPA in national waters in the northeast Atlantic.

“The designation of this site will address one of the last gaps in our MPA network and will be key in achieving the international target of 10% of the world’s oceans covered by an MPA by the end of 2020,” said Scotland’s Natural Environment Minister, Mairi Gougeon. In fact the new MPA means that 34% of Scotland’s seas are now protected.

The designation order does not include the regulations for the new MPA. However, an official consultation by the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee, released this past March, recommended restrictions on various fishing gears and a ban on deep sea mining within the new MPA.

Côte D'Ivoire designates five MPAs, including a transboundary management site

In September, the West African nation of Côte D'Ivoire (formerly Ivory Coast) designated five MPAs — the country’s first marine protected areas. The five sites are all in coastal waters. One of the sites includes the coastal zone along Côte D'Ivoire’s border with Ghana, an area that is part of transboundary management planning by the two nations. A formal transboundary MPA — one of just a few in the world — is the goal, agreed upon by the two nations’ environment ministers this past July.

Analysis of Chinese fishing fleet’s activity around Galápagos in August

In late July and August of this year, a fleet of 300 Chinese fishing vessels was observed on the edge of Ecuador’s EEZ around the Galápagos Islands. Amid international concern that the vessels might be entering protected waters of the Galápagos Marine Reserve, the Government of China announced in early August that its vessels would not fish near Galápagos waters from September through November. Left unsaid was that the vessels would continue fishing there through the remainder of August.

An analysis of fishing vessel data from August near the Galápagos Islands has documented that the Chinese fleet, which was primarily fishing for squid, logged more than 73,000 total hours of apparent fishing there. The data were from automatic identification systems (AIS) on the vessels. The analysis was conducted by Oceana, Google, and SkyTruth using Global Fishing Watch data.

As seen on this map, the boundary of the Galápagos Marine Reserve extends only part way to the edge of the EEZ, so there is a gap between the reserve boundary and the EEZ boundary. According to Marla Valentine of Oceana, who co-led the analysis, there is no evidence from the AIS data that the fleet entered the Galápagos Marine Reserve. “However, there were 43 instances in which vessels appeared to switch off their AIS,” she says. “It is possible that the vessels traversed into the EEZ at this point, but we cannot say for certain.”

Big new fund is launched for coral reef conservation

A new global fund to protect coral reefs was launched in September. The Global Fund for Coral Reefs (GFCR) seeks to raise and invest US $500 million in coral reef conservation over the next 10 years, from 2020-2030. It blends private and public funding.

The GFCR has a dual focus:

  • To facilitate the uptake of innovative financing mechanisms, including private market-based investments focused on coral reef conservation and restoration.
  • To unlock financing for coral reef-related climate adaptation through the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, and multilateral development banks.

The GFCR is requesting information on potential business models and sites that the Fund could support. To submit information, go to the GFCR website. The deadline for submissions is 21 October.

The Fund’s core partners include private philanthropies (Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation), financial institutions (BNP Paribas, Althelia Funds), and UN agencies (UN Environment Programme, UN Development Programme, and UN Capital Development Fund).

MPA-related readings from around the web

How to Save the Sea: Lessons From an Italian Fishing Community (EcoWatch) — A rights-based fishing scheme in Italy’s Torre Guaceto Marine Reserve has helped restore biodiversity in waters previously plagued by overfishing and organized crime.

In this Philippine community, women guard a marine protected area (Mongabay) — On the island of Siquijor in the central Philippines, women in kayaks lead the local sea patrol to protect one of the country’s most well-managed MPAs.

The Great Wall of Fiji (Oceanographic Magazine) — Fiji’s customary management of ocean resources is in some ways a blueprint of the modern MPA approach. But fishing pressure, including poaching in closed areas, is increasing.

As waters warm, these species are stuck going the wrong way (Ars Technica) — As the world warms, mobile marine species are altering their ranges to stay at a comfortable temperature. However, the larvae of some less-mobile species have been observed drifting to even-warmer waters, due to an unfortunate combination of factors.

From the MPA News vault

Features and news items from yesteryear

Five years ago: October-November 2015

  • Assessing the state of the art in training and certifying MPA professionals – Part II
  • The MPA Agency Partnership: An update on the international group of senior MPA leaders

Ten years ago: September-October 2010

  • MPAs and Indigenous Peoples: Co-Management as a Means of Respecting Traditional Culture and Strengthening Conservation
  • Perspective | Reflections on Resource Management, Native Hawaiian Culture, and Papahānaumokuākea

Fifteen years ago: October 2005

  • MPA News Poll: The Coming Challenges for MPAs, and How to Address Them
  • Perspective | Conservation Incentive Agreements As a Tool for Developing and Managing MPAs

Twenty years ago: October 2000

  • New Edition of IUCN "Orange Book" Reflects Changes, Challenges in MPA Field
  • Reader Feedback on the Re-opening of Closed Areas

For these and all other issues of MPA News, go to