Center for American Progress

Beyond 30×30: Global Ocean Conservation Quality Is Lagging Behind Quantity

Beyond 30×30: Global Ocean Conservation Quality Is Lagging Behind Quantity

The international community’s commitment to protect at least 30 percent of our ocean by 2030—a goal known as “30x30”—is both inspiring and challenging; but this effort must go beyond mere numbers and strive for quality, effectiveness, and holistic conservation.

A green sea turtle swims among the corals of Lady Elliot Island.
A green sea turtle swims among the corals of Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.(Getty/LightRocket/Jonas Gratzer)

In December 2022, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to the Global Biodiversity Framework, which includes a commitment to conserve 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 through “ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.” The World Database on Protected Areas estimates that, as of May 2024, 8.01 percent of the ocean is covered by marine protected areas.

“30×30” has been one of the most successful conservation initiatives in history, not just in the United States but around the world. In total, 118 countries have joined a High Ambition Coalition to deliver on 30×30’s ambitious targets. Governments and philanthropic partners are pouring resources into supporting the goal, with the recent Our Ocean Conference in Athens, Greece, raising $11.3 billion in pledges toward ocean conservation. However, while 30×30 is an inspiring metric for understanding, communicating, and measuring conservation success, it only tells part of the story.

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A new study led by Beth Pike at the Marine Conservation Institute measured the effectiveness of these marine protected areas (MPAs) by looking at the world’s 100 largest MPAs—which collectively account for 90 percent of the acreage of global marine protected areas—and assessing them against the MPA Guide’s criteria.* This approach leaves out many thousands of small marine protected areas, but it helps provide big-picture analysis of how the 30×30 movement is progressing on the ocean globally.

The MPA Guide framework

The MPA Guide is a peer-reviewed study published in Science in 2021 to establish a shared language around marine protected areas. It is effectively a Rosetta Stone for understanding different approaches to ocean protection, providing a tool for assessing the likely biodiversity benefits of marine protected areas based on their characteristics. MPAs are more than just lines on a map; their outcomes depend on how their restrictions are designed, how long and well they have been implemented, and the communities and cultures living near where they are placed.

The MPA Guide assesses MPAs across four criteria:

  1. Stage of establishment: Designation of protected areas alone is insufficient for conservation; effective management and enforcement must follow. MPAs vary in the degree to which they’ve been implemented—occurring along a spectrum, they can be proposed, designated, implemented, or actively managed.
  2. Level of protection: The restrictions in place and the different types of human activities allowed within a protected area affect their outcomes. MPAs vary in their level and degree of protective measures; they can be fully protected, highly protected, lightly protected, or minimally protected. Additionally, some allow sustainable activities, while others prohibit all human impact.
  3. Enabling conditions: Every community and country has its own unique culture and way of interacting with protected areas. Regulations, funding, community engagement, and cultural norms are ingredients that lead to conservation success or failure. Often, the process to design conservation is as important as the outcome.
  4. Outcomes: The MPA Guide includes a matrix wherein the “stage of establishment” and “level of protection” of an MPA can be used to predict what types of biological outcomes can be expected. This is influenced by the “enabling conditions,” as the unique attributes specific to a location, such as community support, also play a role in determining the outcomes. Areas with high levels of protection and active management result in the healthiest ecosystems, while areas that are designated with no implementation result in no change.

Assessing the world’s largest MPAs

The new analysis used the World Database on Protected Areas to identify the 100 largest MPAs on the planet and then used the authors’ expertise and professional networks to assess these MPAs against the MPA Guide criteria. Titled “Ocean protection quality is lagging behind quantity: Applying a scientific framework to assess real marine protected area progress against the 30 by 30 target,” the study revealed a number of sobering truths—including that while these MPAs cover nearly 90 percent of reported global MPA coverage, they vary significantly in quality.

Moreover, the analysis yielded the following findings:

  1. Implementation gap: One-quarter of the assessed MPA coverage remains unimplemented. These protected areas were designated but have not led to any change on the water—despite their potential. If governments develop and implement management plans, the MPA Guide predicts that ocean health will improve.
  2. Incompatibility with nature: One-third of the assessed MPAs allow high-impact activities, undermining their conservation value. Even if these areas receive funding and are well staffed, they are unlikely to result in healthier oceans because they continue to legally allow harmful activities such as bottom trawling.
  3. Uneven distribution: Two-thirds of the fully and highly protected MPAs are in isolated overseas territories, such as those designated by the United States, United Kingdom, and France. This study provides a sobering analysis of who carries the conservation burden to meet global biodiversity protection goals and illustrates the need for fair, diverse, and equitable representation and inclusion in marine conservation decisions.
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The good news is that about one-third of the assessed areas are working well. These areas are well designed and implemented and are likely to yield meaningful conservation benefits. But there clearly needs to be a shift toward developing a network of global protected areas that are well designed, well implemented, and just. To this end, CAP has implored governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and individuals to focus less on the top-line numbers and go “beyond 30×30.

Recent years have seen the growth of ocean protections—from less than 1 percent to more than 8 percent of the ocean. Yet, as the new analysis shows, many protections are either poorly designed or poorly enforced, and they are often located in the overseas territories of powerful countries, raising questions of justice and habitat representation. This should be seen as progress but also a sobering reminder that leaders need to move beyond 30×30 targets. They must instead focus on creating equitable networks of protected areas that both contain different habitat types along a spectrum of protection levels and are adequately staffed and funded.

The author wishes to thank lead author Beth Pike for reviewing this column as well as the Editorial team at CAP for their support.

*Author’s note: The author of this column co-authored both the new study on ocean protections and the MPA Guide.

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Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow


Conservation Policy

We work to protect our lands, waters, ocean, and wildlife to address the linked climate and biodiversity crises. This work helps to ensure that all people can access and benefit from nature and that conservation and climate investments build a resilient, just, and inclusive economy.

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