To Protect and Conserve – the Mission of Marine Protected Areas

The mangrove forests of the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve have been cited by community members as important to wellbeing due to the protection from hurricane impacts. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Hameet Singh is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

Marine protected areas have long been heralded as an important area-based management tool to combat ecological change, conserve natural resources, biological diversity, and historical and cultural facets of the landscape. The purpose of an MPA is to provide protection for “any defined area within or adjacent to the marine environment, together with its overlying waters and associated flora, fauna and historical and cultural features.”[1] It strives to diminish the risk of degradation to marine and coastal ecosystems by reducing pressure on fisheries and other related marine activities. This is achieved by limiting interference from human activities to varying degrees, dependent on the IUCN categories.[2] MPAs may also sometimes be set up to safeguard unique ecosystems or species habitats such as sponge glass corals or mangrove forests.

The benefits of MPAs are vast and diverse. They are known to “protect delicate ecosystems so that they remain productive and healthy, maintain areas of biodiversity and genetic variation within the flora and fauna populations, ensure that endangered, threatened, or rare species are protected…”.[3] MPAs are used as a “well-established conservation strategy, employed around the world to protect important marine species and ecosystems and support the recovery of declining populations”.[4] Lesser known, but equally important benefits of MPA establishment are its economic and social facets. MPAs implemented with allowable sustainable use of human activity can help to bolster local economies through fisheries spillover effects and ecotourism ventures. In communities where MPAs have been established for a longer period, they have become embedded in the local culture and community identity.

Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.
Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Fostering Biodiversity

In the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, the MPA where I was based in while doing my graduate research, the local community members that I interviewed repeatedly advocated the significant value that the reserve has brought to their towns. The communities are situated in a lagoon ecosystem, which is host to mangrove forests, in addition to other vegetative biomes. In fact, mangroves surround the coasts of the entire peninsula with a total area of 423,751 ha.[5] Interviewees frequently described the MPA as conserving the mangroves, which in turn safeguards the inland communities from hurricane and storm surges. This is particularly significant for the area, as it is considered a high-risk hurricane zone and situated in the trajectory of hurricanes originating from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.[6] This shows that the existence of the MPA has added to the physical resilience of the communities.

The biosphere and mangroves also provide ecological protection to its myriad of species residing in its core and buffer zones, including hawksbill and green sea turtles, Morelett’s crocodile and American crocodile, jaguar, bare-throated tiger heron, Caribbean spiny lobster, and Atlantic horseshoe crab. Avifauna in particular are of special concern in the ecosystem. The reserve is known as an “Important Bird Area” an internationally recognized standard for the conservation of bird populations.[7] Its strategic location and varied vegetative environments make it a key migratory stop for wintering waterfowl.[8]

Protection of species and habitat has also stabilized some of the previously declining fisheries in the region, which is significant as over 60% of the communities’ population relies on small-scale fishing as its primary source of income.[9] Literature repeatedly indicates that well-managed MPAs build the resilience of coastal communities through the spillover of fish, leading to benefits via increased catch.[10] Fishing is a way of life and comprises self-identity for many living in the communities of the reserve. Increases in the health of local fisheries is embedded in and contributes to the community’s culture and identity.

Supporting Local Communities​

In addition, the implementation of the MPA has brought significant revenue generation through investments in ecotourism. In Ria Lagartos, locals have leveraged the presence of the reserve by promoting ecotourism ventures. It has been used increasingly as a mechanism for alternative income generation and diversification of livelihoods. This has allowed locals to benefit and improve their wellbeing and socio-economic conditions through new employment opportunities and increased revenue. Fishers are doubling as tour guides, escorting sightseers to the mangrove forests, beaches, sinkholes and birdwatching areas.[11] There is a tourist cooperative established in all the communities of Ría Lagartos by cooperative fishers and other community members, including the women’s cooperative. The main attraction of the reserve are the species that inhabit it, particularly the American flamingo and Morelet’s crocodile. Animals such as these attract a multitude of tourists annually, who come to see the species in their natural habitat via birdwatching tours or night excursions.

The American flamingo in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Hameet Singh.
The American flamingo in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Hameet Singh.

Finally, majority of the interviewees attributed the reserve as enhancing their community’s wellbeing, stating that its presence added to local pride and awareness of the marine environment. This in turn created a greater sense and encouragement to care and protect the local environment and a psychological feeling of comfort.

The establishment of an MPA can have a multitude of benefits for the local areas in which it exists, as well the overall global marine ecosystem as a whole. They are known as “biological successes” and safeguard marine species all throughout the food web, and also provide a slew of both economic and social benefits. When designed effectively, MPAs have the potential to conserve the marine environment and protect biodiversity, while simultaneously contributing positively to social and economic development.

What other benefits and success stories are supported by MPAs? Let us know in the comments below!


[2] IUCN (2020). Protected Area Categories. Retrieved from IUCN:

[3] Ginsburg, D. (2013). Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Mexico – the Actam Chuleb Example. Retrieved from Scientific American Blog Network website:

[4] Jessen, S., Morgan, L. E., Bezaury-Creel, J. E., Barron, A., Govender, R., Pike, E. P., … Moffitt, R. A. (2017). Measuring MPAs in Continental North America: How Well Protected Are the Ocean Estates of Canada, Mexico, and the USA? Frontiers in Marine Science, 4.

[5] Adame, M. F., Zaldívar‐Jimenez, A., Teutli, C., Caamal, J. P., Andueza, M. T., López‐Adame, H., … Herrera‐Silveira, J. A. (2013). Drivers of Mangrove Litterfall within a Karstic Region Affected by Frequent Hurricanes. Biotropica, 45(2), 147–154.

[6] Audefroy, J. F., & Sánchez, B. N. C. (2017). Integrating local knowledge for climate change adaptation in Yucatán, Mexico. International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, 6(1), 228–237.

[7] BirdLife International. (2019). BirdLife Data Zone. Retrieved from

[8] SEMARNAT. (2016). Humedales de Ría Lagartos de gran importancia internacional. Retrieved from website:

Unlock the Potential of MPAs – Understanding Lessons Learned

Some of the avifauna present in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and American white ibis. Photo by Hameet Singh.

The ecological and economic wellbeing brought forth by marine protected areas (MPAs) have been extensively studied and supported by a multitude of case studies around the globe (1). MPAs have been known to boost fisheries’ populations, enhance tourism and job opportunities (2), and provide refuge for an array of marine life (3).

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