Five key features of Marine Protected Areas were identified

The level of fishing, control, age, length and degree of isolation determine the effectiveness of MPAs. With these parameters, new and more efficient protection programmes could be designed.

Groupers over a reef. Photo: Courtesy researcher

According to the resolution 65/161 of the United Nations, the period 2011-2020 was declared the United Nation Decade on Biodiversity. On this account, it is important to monitor different species that inhabit the seas and oceans of the planet for preservation and a sustainable exploitation of fish stock without undermining the populations.

A new study published in Nature magazine, in which researchers from twelve countries participated – Argentina among them –, revealed field data worldwide to assess the efficiency of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), geographical areas where natural resources and biodiversity enjoy greater protection.

Alejo Irigoyen and David Galván, assistant researchers of CONICET at the National Patagonian Centre (CENPAT-CONICET), participated in the study that covered about 4,800 underwater visual censuses in more than 2,000 places – including 87 MPAs- distributed throughout 40 countries. Thus, data of more than 2,000 species was collected. “So far, this is the greatest data collection of this size and abundance of fish associated with rocky and coral reefs?”, they indicated.

The analysis of the information collected enabled to identify five factors that influence the effectiveness of the MPAs to protect the biodiversity. “The MPAs that showed high conservation value, that is to say with a large number of fish, had the following features: they were closed fishing areas with effective control and surveillance, ten years old, great size and were isolated from the fishing areas due to shallow waters or sandy areas”, Irigoyen and Galván explained.

As stated by the experts, these MPAs have, in average, eight times more fish of large size, nine times more fish of high commercial value and twenty times more sharks compared to active fishing areas.

These five key features explain the observed differences in relation to other MPAs and the areas without protection: the investigation proves that 59 % of the examined MPAs that have only one or two of the key features are not distinguishable from an ecological point of view of the traditional fishing locations.

Nevertheless, the researchers explain that there are other characteristics that also condition the populations – even in protected areas – such as the mobility of the specimens, larval dispersal, fecundity, longevity, indirect interactions among species or the environmental context, among others, which are not associated with the five proposed parameters.

For Irigoyen and Galván, this new study could provide tools to discuss the benefits of the creation of these areas. “So far there were only individual assessments of the effects, successes and failures of the MPA’s implementation but there were not studies that evaluated the performance of the MPAs worldwide, with data collected in the field for this specific objective”, they stated.

For more than 40 years, the National Patagonian Centre has offered support and developed technology transfer proposals on topics regarding creation, conservation and management practices of protected areas. Currently, Irigoyen and Galván are part of a team of CENPAT researchers that initiated a research project in the Parque Interjurisdiccional Marino Costero Patagonia Austral, recently created by the province of Chubut.

This group of researchers, together with other institutions of the province of Chubut and the national government are formulating recommendations for an effective management of the MPAs in terms of biodiversity conservation and the continuous pursuit of harmony with different social and production sectors.


  • About investigation
  • Alejo Irigoyen. Assistant researcher. CENPAT.
  • David Galvan.  Assistant researcher. CENPAT