Coral reefs play a vital role in maintaining ocean biodiversity and provide habitats for a wide range of species. They protect coastal areas from storm damage and the impact of climate change and can support coastal communities as a source of marine protein and ecotourism opportunities. Many countries have committed to protecting their marine and coastal areas, but this is not happening fast enough. As a result, over 60% of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by overfishing, irresponsible tourism, pollution, and rising sea temperatures.
A Marine Protected Area (MPA) is the ocean equivalent of a nature reserve on land – a defined area for the protection and preservation of ecosystems and wildlife. MPAs are typically established by legislation, with human activities being limited (these limits may not apply to traditional activities by indigenous peoples). Within an MPA, different zones may be set aside for various sustainable activities, and this then requires active management, monitoring, and enforcement.
When they are well managed, MPAs can help reduce overfishing, mitigate conflicts between users and support coastal community livelihoods. By removing local stress factors, protected marine ecosystems can be made more resilient against global challenges. Because they preserve important habitats – and give them time to recover – MPAs tend to have more wildlife, a greater diversity of species, and more fish and other creatures of reproductive age. When MPAs are extensive enough, they can successfully protect all the different habitats a species needs throughout its lifecycle. As populations of fish and other species grow within an MPA, they will often spill over into surrounding areas and contribute to rebuilding fishing stocks.
Despite the importance of Marine Protected Areas, up to 65% of existing MPAs have inadequate budgets for basic management and 90% don’t have enough staff to carry out their core functions. Some MPAs effectively exist on paper only, and this problem is made worse by rapid expansion of MPA networks in the absence of adequate financial resources.
Investors are wary of committing impact capital where they cannot see a track record of success. Instead, they look for sustainable projects that can make a tangible difference. To qualify for this vital investment, MPAs need innovative governance and financial mechanisms – such as blended finance – at all levels to attract adequate, flexible, and on-time funding for successful MPA operations.
Worldwide, there is a serious funding gap for Marine Protected Areas. One viable solution is a public-private partnership where government collaborates with enterprises, NPOs, and community groups to effectively manage MPAs.
Collaboration comes in many forms, including co-management, assistance without taking on decision-making powers, and full delegation of management authority. Collaboration arrangements let governments retain control of core functions whilst giving them access to the financial and scientific expertise they need to make MPAs successful.
Working together also encourages an entrepreneurial approach which can unlock revenue streams through ecotourism and recreation and help to make MPAs financially sustainable.
Inclusive decision-making lets MPA managers benefit from the social capital and accumulated knowledge in co-located communities, while a more flexible approach delivers the kind of agility needed for proactive management, accountability, and greater cost savings.
Non-public entities also have better access to diverse sources of capital and can secure impact investment capital to be blended with concessionary and donor funding as appropriate.
Collaborative management may not always be feasible or appropriate, but more and more, the evidence is showing that it can lessen the financial burden on governments, enable long-term financial and technical support and deliver tangible results.
Many MPAs under collaborative management have become financially sustainable, generating all or most of their revenues through tourism operations without affecting their positive social and ecological impacts.
Examples include the Bonaire National Marine Park or BNMP (Netherlands Antilles), the St Lucia Marine Management Area (South Africa), and Marine Protected Areas in Belize, all of which charge for water-based activities. Others like Misool Eco-Dive Resort (Indonesia) and Chumbe Island Coral Park (Tanzania) generate revenues from ecotourism resorts.