EU Ocean Mission 2030: a tool to assess Marine Protected Areas effectiveness in six steps
SUBMON, together with another three European partners, has recently completed a project commissioned by the European Commission to design a practical tool for assessing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) management effectiveness, contributing to the achievement of protected area targets in the European Union Biodiversity Strategy.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 set ambitious targets and commitments to achieve resilient and healthy ecosystems. For the marine realm, it states clear objectives for protected areas:
Europe’s seas are valuable not only for their rich and unique biodiversity but also for the ecosystem services they provide to society, such as food and oxygen production, mitigation of climate change, and provision of biochemical and pharmaceutical resources. The current over-exploitation of our seas driven by an increasingly greedy population, together with the effects of climate change, is driving our oceans towards tipping points. A massive change in the way we use our seas is necessary to restore and maintain healthy and productive marine ecosystems.
To safeguard biodiversity and to address increasingly complex threats to marine ecosystems, EU Member States have designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), where human activities are regulated more stringently than elsewhere in the marine environment. Natura 2000 network under EU Birds and Habitats Directives is currently the main driver of MPA designation in the EU and, even though the area of the marine network has doubled in the last five years, it is not yet complete, in particular offshore. Strictly protected areas, known to deliver the biggest benefits to biodiversity and society, currently cover less than 1% of our seas.
MPAs are widely recognised as a primary tool for conserving and restoring biodiversity and contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, these assumptions are only true when MPAs are effectively managed. Unfortunately, in Europe, many of them are still “paper parks”, lacking the necessary conservation objectives and measures, as well as management, surveillance and enforcement resources.
To track the achievement of commitments under the Biodiversity Strategy and obligations for Natura 2000 sites, the European Commission has commissioned a project to develop and test a methodology to evaluate the management effectiveness of marine Natura 2000 sites and other EU MPAs. Over the past 18 months SUBMON, in collaboration with Atecma, Ecologic Institute, and Seawatch Foundation, has designed a methodology that assesses all the aspects of the MPA management cycle and allows MPA managers and authorities to undertake a self-evaluation.
Vedran Nikolić from the Nature Conservation Unit of the Commission’s DG Environment said:
“We don’t want “paper parks” in the European Union. They don’t bring benefits to biodiversity and to our society. MPAs will play a crucial role in the restoration of our marine environment and achieving commitments made in the EU Biodiversity Strategy, but only if they are effectively managed. This project is a key step towards developing an EU system for assessing and reporting on MPA management effectiveness so that we can take the necessary steps to boost their contribution to marine conservation and restoration across EU seas. We will now discuss with Member States how this methodology could be applied in practice for all EU protected areas.”
After a thorough review of existing frameworks and methodologies for assessing the management effectiveness of marine protected areas, a new tool was crafted. The methodology, developed in the form of a questionnaire, is organized under six themes, giving a progress score at the end of the evaluation process.
The questionnaire was not only designed to evaluate the current effectiveness of the MPA, but also to help identify areas of strength and weakness that could be used to inform future management actions, embracing an adaptive management approach. The questionnaire was tested in 74 European marine Natura 2000 sites and other MPAs, and finally adjusted based on the feedback received from two participative workshops, where the methodology was discussed and reviewed by stakeholders involved in EU MPA management.
Establishing a new MPA or Natura 2000 marine site may appear to be a great achievement for conservation. However, to ensure long-term success and benefits for biodiversity and society, it is necessary to evaluate and ensure their effectiveness, while adjusting conservation strategies through time. The project and its outputs hopefully mark the beginning of future efforts to evaluate the current state of EU MPAs and Natura 2000 network implementation, to improve their effectiveness and to achieve the goals set forth by the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030.