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How Effective are Canada's Marine Protected Areas?

Updated: May 23, 2020

A recent article in Nature is making headlines for estimating that both marine species and habitats can make a substantial recovery within thirty-years of removing causes of ocean damage, such as overfishing, pollution, and climate change (1,2). Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which can help restore coastal habitats, fish, and megafauna populations, are highlighted in this article as an important, necessary, and powerful tool for marine conservation (1).

Canada, the nation with the world’s longest coastline - spanning three oceans and the Great Lakes (3) - committed to the target of conserving 10% of coastal and marine areas through managed networks of MPAs and other effective conservation methods by 2020 (4). This target seemed ambitious when it was set ten years ago, since at the time only 1% of Canada’s oceans and Great Lakes were protected in some manner (5). This national target has been met and surpassed. Today 13.81% of Canada’s marine and coastal areas are protected (4). However, this article in Nature also echoes the concerns raised by Canadians in the 2018 Final Report of the National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Areas Standards that these quantitative targets might lead to lower quality and less effective MPAs (1, 6).

One way of ensuring that protected areas are effective is to replace quantitative targets with biodiversity targets (6). This could push lawmakers to protect areas with high biodiversity value and adopt high standards and guidelines for protecting these areas. Another way to assess MPA effectiveness is to look for the characteristics of No-take, Enforced, Old, Large, and Isolated (NEOLI) (7). A study that assessed the conservation benefits of MPAs worldwide by surveying 964 sites in 87 MPAs found that MPAs with less than three NEOLI features show no significant ecological differences to fished, unprotected sites (7). Based on the findings of this study it is likely that a low proportion of MPAs worldwide are effective, only 10% of the MPAs studied possessed four or five NEOLI features (7). Therefore, despite surpassing quantitative targets for ocean protection, further research into Canadian MPAs is necessary to truly understand the benefits provided by these areas and what can be improved upon.

Since the benefits of MPAs increase over time (7), and most MPAs in Canada are less than ten years old, how and what makes these areas most effective may only be fully realized in years to come (1). These areas should be consistently monitored to provide data for these evaluations. Going forward sufficient interest among the public, managers, and politicians to continually provide resources, governance, and protection to these areas will be necessary (1, 7).

In conclusion, MPAs are important marine conservation tools that can be valuable and effective. Qualitative targets based on biodiversity values or NEOLI features should be set for Canada’s coastal and marine protected sites in order to ensure effective protection.


1: Duarte CM, Agusti S, Barbier E, Britten GL, Castilla JC, et al. Rebuilding marine life. Nature, 580: 39-51, 2020. Available from

2: Carrington D. Oceans can be restored to former glory within 30 years, say scientists. The Guardian, 2020. Available from

3: The Office of the Auditor General of Canada. 2012 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development: Chapter 3 - Marine Protected Areas. Government of Canada, 2012. Available from

4: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Reaching marine conservation targets. Government of Canada, 2020. Available from

5: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. National Framework for Canada's Network of Marine Protected Areas. Government of Canada, 2011. Available from

6: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Final Report of the National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Area Standards. Government of Canada, 2018. Available from

7: Edgar GJ, Stuart-Smith RD, Willis TJ, Kininmonth S, Baker SC, et al. Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features. Nature, 506: 216-220, 2014. Available from

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