The MPA Wave

In 2004, Australia created the first large-scale marine protected area (MPA) in the world. Its Great Barrier Reef Marine Park had been a world heritage site since 1981, but ten years ago the government of Australia did the unthinkable – they banned all fishing, both recreational and commercial, from 33% of the park. In one fell swoop, they created the most protected coral reef system in the world. Environmental leaders hailed the move, saying it set the standard for global marine conservation.

GREAT BARRIER REEF, OFF QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA, CORAL SEA.The Great Barrier Reef off Queensland, Australia, Coral Sea. Photo by Gordon Gahan.

Since then, ten more large scale-marine reserves have gone from pipe dream to reality. The U.K. is the current record holder, with the Chagos Island Marine Reserve, created in 2010, covering more than 640,000 square kilometers. But not far behind are Australia’s Coral Sea Marine National Park at 502,000 square kilometers, Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area at 411,000 square kilometers, the U.S.’s Papahanaumokaekea National Marine Sanctuary at 362,000 square kilometers, and Chile’s Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park at 150,000 square kilometers. Even with all this progress, less than 2% of the world’s oceans are protected from extractive activities.

A giant coral the team discovered near Salas y Gomez, part of the Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park in Chile. Photo by Enric Sala.

Now the United States stands poised to break the record, and set the bar so high that no other nation may be able to exceed it. If President Obama expands the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to the full extent of U.S. jurisdiction, it would be a no take marine reserve that tops 2 million square kilometers. The U.S.’s expansion of this one reserve would double the amount of ocean area currently under protection from fishing and mining.

However, the United States has some healthy competition. The governments of Palau, the Cook Islands, the Pitcairn Islands (U.K.), New Caledonia, Fiji, the Bahamas, Chile, and Gabon are all in the process of creating huge, new no-take marine reserves. Which gives people like Aulani Wilhelm, founder of Big Ocean, a network of marine reserve managers, Sue Taei of Conservation International, and me, a real sense of optimism. Aulani and Sue remember how lonely it was at the beginning of the movement – but no more.

Galapagos shark, Carcharhinus galapagensisGalápagos sharks, Carcharhinus galapagensis, are the dominant top predator at Salas y Gómez Island – part of Chile’s Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park. Photo by Enric Sala.

I am at the United Nations Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States, where the leaders of many island nations are joining the movement. On Sunday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed that there is a palpable desire to expand the notion of sustainable development and create “blue-green” economies, in which leaders manage their ocean resources well. Leaders here can sense that they are part of a growing wave – like those human “waves” that wrap around a stadium at sporting events – of increasing marine conservation around the globe. Hopefully this wave has not crested yet.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Monica Medina is the Senior Director for International Ocean Policy at the National Geographic Society. She is determined to help save endangered wildlife and the last wild places in the ocean.