Looks Good on Paper: Addressing the Problem of Paper Parks

March 29, 2021; By Mary Pantenburg, WildAid Marine Intern

The majority of the ocean is threatened by human activity. One proposed solution is to create sections of the sea protected from these threats, also known as marine protected areas (MPAs). Governments have the ability to establish their own MPAs in order to shield threatened marine ecosystems from destructive human activity (Leemans, 2017). When successfully established and managed, MPAs can increase local fisheries’ stocks via the spillover effect (when healthy fish in the MPA move to surrounding regions with active fishing), increase tourism in the region, and provide scientists and researchers with healthy living laboratories (Briggs 2020). Well-managed MPAs act as a barrier between destructive boating activity, fishing, and pollution and allow an area to thrive.

Unfortunately, many MPAs are established with good intentions but lack management. For many countries, establishing a new MPA may appear to be an exciting achievement for conservation, but the battle to implement a new and successful MPA does not end there. While the formulation of an MPA is a critical piece of the process, the initial designation must not overshadow the additional steps necessary for long-term success. The establishment of an MPA is the first step, followed by the creation of a management plan, the allocation of funds for rangers to enforce the MPAs, and the development of long-term plans to continue successful management (Slezak 2014). When an MPA is established without a plan for enforcement and management, we can end up with what is called a “paper park.”

What are paper parks?
The term “paper park,” first defined in a 1999 WWF-World Bank report, refers to “a legally established protected area where experts believe current protection activities are insufficient to halt degradation.” (Dudley and Stolton, 1999). In the marine context, a paper park is an established MPA that lacks sufficient management and enforcement to implement regulations and management plans and achieve conservation goals effectively (Slezak 2014).

What does this look like in practice? Think of a national park like Yosemite. Imagine this park without rangers, without a pay station or entry fees, and no park services like sanitation and maintenance. Without this fundamental infrastructure needed to manage a national park, the area might as well be designated as unmanaged land where all activities are permitted, and damage may be done to its unique features. Similarly, an MPA without management and enforcement is essentially just a few lines on a map or a park on paper (Slezak 2014). Paper parks are problematic because management and enforcement prevent destructive activities, and lack thereof may allow damage despite the new laws in place.

How do paper parks come to be?
At their core, paper parks are the negative outcome of well-intentioned efforts. Paper parks occur when there is pressure to create an MPA, but the resources allocated to that project do not consider the continued protections needed (National Geographic Society). For example, designating a new MPA in an area with an overfishing problem while failing to provide a funding plan for the rangers to enforce the new fishing ban offers no legitimate protections.

In the past few years, the international community has set ambitious conservation goals. These goals are increasing the pressure for tangible change. As countries allocate more space for MPAs in an attempt to reach their conservation commitments, this can create an environment ripe for paper parks. According to the U.N.’s World Database on Protected Areas, there are currently 14,092 established MPAs covering 7% of the ocean (Marine Conservation Institute). This equates to roughly an area the size of North America. The Marine Conservation Institute and its Atlas of Marine Protection estimate that only 2.7% of MPAs are actually protected and well managed, while the remaining 4.3% of MPAs are established but lack high management levels.

New MPA designations will allow countries to check off a box but do not guarantee basic protections for the designated MPA (National Geographic Society). If hundreds of MPAs are established but receive only weak protections, we are wasting time and resources. MPAs cannot be declared successful without ongoing management that can guarantee continued protection of the MPA.

Addressing the problem of paper parks
Twenty years ago, WildAid Marine identified a critical need for stronger enforcement in MPAs, fisheries, and national waters. In order to address the problem of paper parks, we needed to address the gap in marine enforcement. With on-the-water experience in 16 countries, we pioneered a six-step approach to marine enforcement, called the BLUEPRINT for Marine Protection, that empowers local leaders to strengthen monitoring and surveillance within and around conservation-critical MPAs. We work with local partners of all types, from community-based nonprofits to numerous large NGOs and international strategic alliances, to bring meaningful enforcement to priority marine areas worldwide. Our goal is to do away with paper parks by designing effective enforcement solutions that deter illegal fishing and strengthen the protection of priority marine areas for the benefit of endangered wildlife, marine ecosystems, fisheries, and coastal communities.

When we begin work in a new location, we first conduct a full assessment of current enforcement strategies and develop a set of recommendations and investment priorities tailored to the location’s unique needs. We then provide training and mentorship to empower our partners to effectively manage and enforce their MPAs over the long-term. For example, when WildAid Marine started working with rangers in Tanzania to protect the Pemba Channel Conservation Area, a lack of resources meant rangers were limited to patrolling their MPA on foot via the beach, leaving large marine areas unmonitored. After careful consideration with our local partner, Marine and Coastal Community Conservation Zanzibar, we decided that the best solution was to provide Pemba’s rangers with two simple patrol vessels, along with training basic patrolling strategies. By responding to local conditions, we are able to help our partners identify smart investments and solutions that will help ensure their MPAs are more than just paper parks.

The WildAid Marine method of enforcement is not a quick fix but rather a slow and thoughtful commitment to finding the best solutions for each individual place. We understand that good intentions are not enough; effective management and enforcement are crucial for preventing each new MPA from simply being another paper park. 

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