Paper Parks Re-Examined: Building a Future for "MPAs-in-Waiting"

MPA News

In the field of marine protected areas, an unfortunate reality is that many sites are "paper parks". Existing on paper - in laws and on maps - but failing to provide effective management and enforcement, these sites offer the promise of robust protection without the reality of it. Budget shortfalls, faulty planning, insufficient community support...there are many reasons why an MPA may be a paper park. Overcoming the reasons for failure and steering these sites to a functional state pose big challenges for the MPA community.

Nonetheless, paper parks also offer an opportunity. The fact they have already been designated provides at least the seed for protection, particularly in jurisdictions where there is opposition to new MPAs. Conceivably this seed can sprout if given the right attention and resources.

That may be easier said than done in this time of tight government finances and stretched management budgets. But practitioners are examining the opportunities at MPAs both large and small. In this issue of MPA News, we examine efforts to build a more effective and sustainable future for paper parks.

Paper parks affecting debate on MPA usefulness

When MPA News published its first article on paper parks in 2001 (MPA News 2:11), we described reasons many MPAs fail and how practitioners were working to strengthen individual sites. Each year since then, that issue of the newsletter has remained among the most downloaded from our website - an indication that paper parks remain a significant problem. Case in point: an assessment of management effectiveness at coral reef MPAs worldwide, conducted by the World Resources Institute for its 2011 report Reefs at Risk Revisited, found that 47% of the sites were ineffective in meeting their goals, as opposed to fully or partially effective (

The phenomenon of paper parks has entered the public debate on usefulness of MPAs. In a newspaper opinion piece in 2010, a representative of California state wildlife wardens called for a halt to designating new no-take marine reserves in California waters, citing a lack of funds to enforce the sites adequately. His portrayal of the new MPAs as "Marine Poaching Areas" - productive areas where poachers would be able to fish illegally without fear of arrest - was picked up by opponents of the proposed sites. (Published in the Sacramento Bee, the opinion piece is no longer available on the newspaper's website.)

At least those California sites are inshore, relatively visible to coastal monitors. The farther offshore an MPA is, and the larger its area, the bigger challenge enforcement can become. A recent article in Nature magazine suggested that the current global trend of designating very large MPAs in remote areas would make the problem of paper parks worse ("Ocean Conservation: Uncertain Sanctuary",

Developing ways to supplement at-sea enforcement

Among the newest, largest, and most remote MPAs in the world are shark sanctuaries, where fishing for sharks is banned to provide refuge from rampant global overfishing. At least six nations have designated a shark sanctuary across their EEZs in the past decade: Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands. Although the land area of some of these nations is very small, their marine areas can be enormous - hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in some cases.

Matt Rand is director of the Global Shark Conservation Campaign for Pew Environment Group, an NGO that has partnered with the above nations and local NGOs to develop shark sanctuary plans. He acknowledges that enforcement of the shark sanctuaries, particularly for developing nations, is difficult.

"At-sea enforcement is expensive," says Rand. "Monitoring, control, surveillance, and enforcement of the Exclusive Economic Zones of many developing countries are insufficient to ensure that pirate fishers of sharks will be apprehended. Even when caught, bonds and fines are sometimes too low to serve as a deterrent."

With those challenges in mind, some in the MPA field have viewed the shark sanctuaries as paper parks: the sites lack the at-sea enforcement capacity to back up their ambitious goals. But Rand says there are ways around the at-sea enforcement dilemma, namely by strengthening enforcement elsewhere, like at port.

"Enforcement at port does not require additional infrastructure, and additional training costs for customs and port officials can be minimal," he says. "For this reason, Pew advocates for measures that prohibit the possession, trade, or sale of sharks or shark products as part of a nation's shark sanctuary regulation or legislation. With no way to legally land or export sharks or shark fins at domestic ports, the incentive to target sharks is reduced, if not completely eliminated. Boats catching sharks are forced to go farther and use more fuel to get to ports where they can offload their catch."

When the Marshall Islands first designated its shark sanctuary, for example, it still allowed fishermen to retain bycatch of sharks - caught when the fishermen targeted other species. This left a loophole that fishermen could use to sell shark fins, claiming they had not meant to catch the sharks. Pew worked with the Marshall Islands Conservation Society and the Marshall Islands Marine Resource Authority to ban all sales of sharks or shark products in the nation, closing the bycatch loophole.

In addition, Rand supports "appropriately prohibitive fines" to prevent penalties from being absorbed by offenders as a cost of doing business. And where locals are dependent on the shark trade, compensation can be useful to encourage their switch to other trades, he says. When the Maldives government designated its shark sanctuary, for example, it simultaneously bought out the operators and gear of a small-boat shark fishery that supplied export markets.

At-sea enforcement does have its occasional successes, too, which can serve to supplement the port-based actions. Rand notes that in November 2011 a US Coast Guard vessel patrolling Marshallese national waters intercepted a vessel transporting shark fins and skins. And in December 2011 a Palauan patrol boat, aided by a Greenpeace ship and helicopter, intercepted a Taiwanese vessel with sharks and fins aboard. Legal action is underway against the offending vessels.

"The development of shark sanctuaries is a bright spot for shark conservation," says Rand. "We hope to see many more countries following the lead of these small coastal nations."

Is a paper park better than no park at all?

Paper parks exist on land as they do at sea. When Yellowstone was designated in 1872 as the first US national park, there was virtually no enforcement of its regulations against hunting, logging, and other extractive activity. Poaching was rampant. The situation was so bad that in 1886 the US Army was handed management control of the park, which it held for 30 years (until the National Park Service was established by Congress).

Today that history is often forgotten. The park's management and enforcement - long since returned to civilian control and continuously improved over time - are models of good practice. At this point, there might be a temptation to view the park's first years as wasted time, that the park would have done just as well to be designated later when management capacity was stronger. But is that correct? If the government had delayed designation for decades until management capacity was ready, and while demands on resource use in the area continued to increase, would the resulting park look the same in terms of its boundaries and regulations?

A similar scenario could be imagined for paper parks in the marine realm. Mark Spalding, who co-edited a 2010 UNEP report on global MPA coverage (Global Ocean Protection: Present Status and Future Possibilities; and co-authored the above-mentioned Reefs at Risk Revisited report, says paper parks can serve a very basic purpose. "Quite a few sites have become more effective over time, and this may be the key," says Spalding. "Designation can provide a framework for protection that can then be improved and revised. The ineffective MPAs then become sort of 'MPAs-in-waiting'. At least the marker is down, and that might be critical as competition for the use of ocean space increases."

Part of the waiting aspect of MPAs-in-waiting may be for technologies and strategies to catch up to the need. Spalding says it is hard to imagine a situation, for example, where large "mega-MPAs" will ever effectively be enforced by conventional means like patrol boats and planes. "But we can get savvier," he says. "The use of unmanned surveillance vessels or aircraft is relatively untested in MPAs, but has huge potential.* Elsewhere, including in smaller MPAs, we perhaps need to get others involved to do the policing for their own benefit: those might be tourists, artisanal fishers, or even international commercial fishers operating under license, rather than patrol vessels. Incentives could be put in place to ensure these users benefit from reporting on activities that affect their own use or enjoyment of the resources."

[* Editor's note: A 2010 report on emerging enforcement technologies - based on work by the Surveillance and Enforcement of Remote Maritime Areas (SERMA) project, a partnership of resource managers, law enforcement personnel, and other experts - is at]

To be clear, Spalding is not a fan of paper parks. He cautions against interpreting his comments as a license to designate MPAs without planning, or to do so against the will of critical stakeholders - which can cause resentment and heighten the potential for noncompliance, he says. He cites as an example the UK's 544,000-km2 Chagos MPA in the Indian Ocean, where displaced Chagossian islanders are still fighting for the right to return to the islands and to use the marine resources there. "In such cases, one can hope that over time and with concerted effort, genuine concerns can be taken into account and compromise achieved," says Spalding.

Funding the transformation of a paper park to functional status

The cost of managing an MPA varies from site to site due to a combination of natural and social factors, including MPA size ("Comparing the Costs of Large vs. Small MPAs...", MPA News 12:6) and number of visitors ("Box: The cost of operating an MPA", MPA News 5:5). In 2003, Kalli De Meyer, former manager of the successful Bonaire National Marine Park in the southern Caribbean, estimated that the 27-km2 site cost roughly US $10,000 per square kilometer (US $100 per hectare) to operate each year.

Without adequate financial support to match circumstances and management needs, an MPA can be driven to paper park status. In the Bahamas in the northern Caribbean, South Berry Island MPA provides an example. The 183-km2 no-take marine reserve, designated in 2009 under the jurisdiction of the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources, regularly experiences illegal fishing and physical damage to its coral reefs. The department suffers from limited resources, both financial and technical, and must ration support across its system of protected areas. As a result there is little funding available for South Berry Island MPA and no active management in place.

However, the MPA received a break in April 2011 when a cruise ship anchored nearby. The ship was hosting an international meeting of entrepreneurs, artists and innovators - the Summit at Sea ( - and attendees expressed an interest in focusing their collective energy on a particular project. An idea was embraced to raise funds to support and strengthen a needy marine protected area, including by building a sustainable management framework for it. South Berry Island MPA had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

Within weeks, the MPA was the focus of a US $500,000 online fundraising campaign - an example of "crowdfunding" that has attracted mostly small donations from many individuals online ( As of mid-January 2012, the fundraising goal is already 98% reached, with a particular boost from one entrepreneur who donated $250,000.

The $500,000 target figure was based on a draft management plan of the MPA developed by the Bahamian government and The Nature Conservancy with public stakeholder input. Felicity Burrows, marine conservation specialist in The Nature Conservancy's Northern Caribbean office, says the collected funds will help address several immediate needs of the MPA, including a patrol boat, mooring and marker buoys, signage, and facilities. A portion of the funds will also help build a system to support the MPA's financial sustainability over time. "Effective management of MPAs is not a one-time deal - it is a long-term effort," says Burrows. "Using part of the $500,000 to create sustainable finance mechanisms, like entrance and user fees, is important if the reserve is to remain functional." She notes a feasibility study will determine the most effective funding mechanisms for the site.

M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy worldwide, says that focusing funds and attention on existing paper parks makes sense. "The truth is that many good ideas or efforts languish for often pretty simple reasons," says Sanjayan. "Someone has started the job but not completed it. It is much more efficient to identify these opportunities and complete them than to start from scratch. It is analogous to doing energy-efficiency retrofits on existing buildings: it might not be as sexy as constructing a new highly efficient building, but it can be a much quicker way to achieve your efficiency goals. In the case of South Berry Island MPA, the site had already gone through the time-consuming designation process, and there was also already a local constituency for conservation. The MPA just needed a little financial help getting over the hump, and an investment could bring a great rate of return in terms of conservation outcomes."

The Nature Conservancy has agreed to match the $500,000 raised for South Berry Island MPA dollar for dollar. The match funds will be vested in the Bahamas Protected Areas Fund, an endowment now being established to provide sustainable finance for the Bahamas National Protected Area System.

A decade ago, The Nature Conservancy and partner institutions, with funds from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), conducted a program called Parks in Peril ( The program transformed multiple nonfunctioning terrestrial parks in Latin America to functioning, sustainable conservation efforts. Says Sanjayan, "The key is to be clear about which sites are in trouble because of lack of funding and what the jams are, and to have quantifiable measures to ensure the fund is accountable to outcomes." Those quantifiable measures could include how effectively an area is protected, and how people's lives have been enhanced by the protection.

The Parks in Peril program came to an end when USAID's attention shifted more to sustainable development. However, says Sanjayan, a similar program for MPAs could still be a worthwhile endeavor. "If we had a comprehensive list of marine sites in need of support to transform from paper park to functioning MPA, and we could tie those efforts to quantifiable outcomes, I think a fund could be generated for those paper parks. That could have a shot."

For more information:

Matt Rand, Pew Environment Group, Washington, DC, US. E-mail: mrand [at]

Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy, Cambridge, UK. E-mail: mspalding [at]

M. Sanjayan, The Nature Conservancy, Alexandria, Virginia, US. E-mail: msanjayan [at]; Twitter: @msanjayan

BOX: More on paper parks and management effectiveness

What Should Be Done When MPAs Do Not Meet Their Goals? MPA News 9:6

On Defining MPA 'Success' and Choosing an Evaluation Model: Interview with Marc Hockings. MPA News 7:10

Paper Parks in the Philippines: Improved Information Tells a New Story. MPA News 7:6

Problem is Shortage of Capacity, Not Revenue Sources: Proposing a New Approach to Financing Protected Areas. MPA News 5:5

Paper Parks: Why They Happen, and What Can Be Done to Change Them. MPA News 2:11

(All back issues of MPA News are available at