International examples of effective marine protected areas

Marine protected areas already exist in the world, and they differ in size, level, and category of protection, as well as permitted, restricted, and completely prohibited activities.

When it comes to the sea, strictly protected areas or no-take zones are the most effective level of area protection because they bring the most benefits for biological diversity, but also for the local community through the recovery of economically important species. According to the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, member states must contribute to the establishment of a effective protected areas network on 30% of the sea surface, of which 10% of the sea must be strictly protected.

Currently, there are very few areas that are effective in achieving protection goals. 
According to marine protection experts, and following the Criteria and guidance for protected areas designations of the EU Commission, examples of effective strictly protected marine areas in Europe are the Columbretes Islands and the Medes Islands in Spain, Calanques in France and Torre Guaceto in Italy.

To preserve biodiversity and restore the fish stock, strictly protected areas should be established in in-shore and offshore areas, because completely different habitats and species are represented in these parts. Therefore, below we present to you two international examples of effective protected areas, the coastal area of Torre Guaceto and the offshore islands of Columbretes.

Torre Guaceto Marine Protected Area (Italy)

The protected area of Torre Guaceto is located on the Adriatic coast of Italy, in the region of Puglia.

Protection was declared in 1991 on an area of 2227 ha, but until 2001 it existed purely “on paper”. In 2001, protection was implemented in the field and fishing was prohibited to enable the fish stock recovery. There was resistance from fishermen (poaching), fishing tools confiscation, and deprivation of privileges. However, the conflicts calmed down and a great effort was made to bring about the cooperation of the stakeholders on the ground.

Since 2005, the area has been participatively managed with the fishermen’s involvement, civil society organizations, and scientific institutions. Co-operative management with local fishermen fishing within the Torre Guaceto Marine Protected Area is one of the few examples of good practice that demonstrates that it is possible to incorporate traditional fisheries into sustainable resource management.

The habitats included in the protection are mosaic, including sea flowers meadows, sandy beaches, and deep-sea Mediterranean coral formations, and provide a home to numerous species of shellfish, sponges, gorgonians, fish, etc.

The area consists of three zones with different degrees of protection: strictly protected areas, general area, and partially protected area. Only scientific research is allowed in the strictly protected area. The general area is additionally used for scientific research, but swimming and special tours are also allowed, while the partially protected area, which is also the largest, is also used for regulated small-scale coastal and sport-recreational fishing and for the passage of ships. Anchoring is prohibited. Area guards and researchers are authorized to monitor and check catches and fishing gear used.

Scientific research shows that the effectiveness of protection and monitoring of the area is very high, and the area also provides significant fisheries benefits. It was found that the catch per unit of effort is about twice as high in the protected area compared to the neighboring waters, so the income is twice as high.

Islas Columbretes Natural and Marine Reserve (Spain)

The Columbretes Islands are a group of small uninhabited islets and reefs of volcanic origin in the Mediterranean Sea, 30 nautical miles from the coast. Administratively they belong to the province of Valencia.

The archipelago was declared a wildlife reserve in 1988, and in 1990 the protection was extended to the marine reserve. The area belongs to the Ib protection category according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), which means that it has retained its natural character, that is, there has been no significant human impact. The Columbretes Islands are an area of SPAMI – Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance.

The marine protected area is divided into three zones with somewhat different activity regulations: strictly protected area, marine reserve, and special purpose area. Free vessel anchoring, fishing of any kind, and taking of animals, plants, objects, or rocks are prohibited in all three zones. Only scientific research is allowed in the strictly protected area.

Free diving is allowed, while scuba diving is restricted to a special purpose area, with prior approval. Prerequisites for diving are a valid diving license with at least 25 recorded dives, while the last dive must be within the last 12 months.

Due to the sensitivity of the area, organized visits are allowed. Disembarkation is possible only on one island, where there is also a lighthouse, accompanied by a nature guard, observing certain rules of conduct. There is a maximum daily visit limit and visiting time. Permission to visit the island is given on a first-come, first-served basis and cannot be reserved in advance. Sailing through the protected area is permitted, but limited to a maximum speed of three knots.

The vessel anchoring is possible only at established anchorages. Restrictions on the use of this area are essential for effective protection. Although fishing is not allowed, fishermen who fish in the surrounding sea profit from the protection. Namely, within the protected area there is an increase in the mass and number of economic species of organisms that then populate the surrounding area (“spillover effect”).

Due to its isolation, the archipelago is home to numerous endemic species, as well as a breeding ground for rare seabirds. Submerged reefs dominate the surrounding sea. The diversity of depths and habitats, the distance from the coast, and the existence of continuous protection enabled a great diversity of communities with an excellent preservation degree. Some species found here are rare in the coastal zone of the province of Valencia due to overfishing or changes in habitats, like cystoseira algae, lobster, grouper, red coral, large hornbill, bottlenose dolphin, loggerhead turtle, and others.

Thanks to the strict marine protection, the Columbretes Islands are today an area of well-preserved Mediterranean habitats, which makes this archipelago an interesting place for scientific research.

These are merely some of the examples that prove to us that the strict protection of marine areas contributes to the species preservation and the increase of their mass and diversity. It also brings benefits to local communities. Therefore, strictly protected areas are simply necessary if we want to ensure the well-being of biodiversity, but also for humans.

We hope that in the near future some strictly protected areas in Croatia will be an example of efficiency that we will be proud of, and that we too will have a sea full of life. And for that, we need the support of all of you…