Marine Protected Areas

For centuries, man has exploited the resources of the sea. However, there is a lack of technological, scientific and administrative capacity to carry out fishing efforts without damaging fish and marine invertebrate populations. On the one hand, regulations have been set, such as quotas, fishing seasons, and catch sizes, but only for some species whose commercial value was or is high. On the other hand, fishing has not been regulated for most species, especially those that are exploited by the artisanal or coastal fisheries of our country.

What is a marine reserve for?

Like all overexploited natural resources, fish and marine invertebrate stocks are reduced when there is unregulated fishing, yet the problem goes beyond diminishing populations. For example, it has been observed that the size of individuals is reduced under intense fishing pressure. This happens because larger and older individuals are eliminated from the population and the smaller and younger individuals begin to mature more quickly. If fishing eliminates older individuals, those who survive are less able to reproduce because they produce less gametes and of lesser quality. This means that the potential of individuals of a species is reduced consistently and therefore it decreases the ability of the population to recover to an optimal level of abundance. When these changes occur in a “key” species, the whole ecosystem goes into an altered state where the number of species decreases and the productivity of the system deteriorates.


To understand these effects from an economic point of view, we can imagine what happens to a checking account when it is overdrawn. Logically, capital is increasingly reduced and at the same time less interest can be accrued. This has a few side effects, since each check that is issued raises fees for the uncontrolled use of the account, up to a point where the capacity to manage finances is lost. In this situation, although there is still some money, you cannot pay monthly services and this most likely will lead to bankruptcy. While the solution to the problem is to control costs, maintaining a savings account to support the checking account could help finances and reduce any side effects. That is, if you keep a savings account with a sufficiently high balance and if you used it in synch with the checking account, you could avoid losing money from commissions, while maintaining a higher interest return, to normalize current expenditure.

A marine reserve is like one of many savings accounts that can be used to ensure there are enough marine resources. It is a natural protected area where activities that damage or alter the environment are permanently banned, with the aim of preserving a representative portion of the different aquatic ecosystems and their biodiversity. Marine reserves not only bring benefits to populations of flora and fauna that live there, but they can also positively affect species living in nearby areas. In a sense, marine reserves export individuals, adults and larvae, and even juveniles, to areas that are not protected and therefore can help maintain and restore populations outside the reserve.

The effects of a well-designed and monitored marine reserve

If properly designed, marine reserves can also help protect migratory species. Despite their great mobility, entire populations gather in specific migratory corridors or breeding areas to reproduce or feed, thus making them very vulnerable to fishing or other human activities. If a reservation is established in an area where the aforementioned ecological processes occur, it can help protect the migratory species of interest during a period in which it is most vulnerable. For example, preserving mangroves or seagrass, which are breeding areas for many economically important species, results in an increase in the adult population of the species that might live tens of kilometers away.

Most importantly, marine reserves provide forms of protection different from other management strategies because they protect the entire ecosystem and the diversity of species that inhabit it. This in turn results in a variety of benefits, the most important of which can favor the fisheries sector since they help increase biomass, abundance, and diversity of commercial species.

How many marine reserves are in Mexico?

The marine area of Mexico covers over three million square kilometers, of which, according to the National Commission of Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), only 1.38% of are protected under a reservation decree. This protection is distributed throughout the country in about 90 coastal and marine areas. The need for the creation of more marine reserves in the country, whose ecological benefits support the recovery and maintenance of marine biodiversity in Mexico, is obvious. For this reason, the Convention on Biological Diversity set a goal of protecting at least 10% of the oceans between 2012 and 2020. However, the intention to create more marine reserves is not guaranteeing the sustainability of marine areas, because not even existing reserves are recovering.

Why are marine reserves in Mexico not working?

With the exception of Cabo Pulmo, most marine reserves in Mexico deteriorate more with each passing day. This is mainly due to three factors: 1. a lack of resources necessary for adequate protection; 2. a small number of established no-take areas; and 3. a lack of involvement by communities in their management. New marine reserves created without considering the resources necessary to address the above needs risk becoming “paper reserves”, which only meets the percentage goals in protection policies, but provide no real environmental or conservation benefit.


In Mexico, the organism responsible for designating and managing marine reserves is the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP). However, CONANP does not have the jurisdiction to enforce laws and regulations that itself creates for the marine reserves it establishes. Such responsibilities correspond to the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) and the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries (CONAPESCA), and both institutions depend on the Secretariat of the Navy to secure marine protected areas. The division of responsibilities between creating regulations and applying these among different government agencies is hindering their implementation. In addition, the staff available for safeguarding protected areas is insufficient, leaving marine reserves completely unprotected. For example, for the entire Gulf of California, PROFEPA has about 14 people assigned to safeguard 23,300 square kilometers of marine reserves, and CONAPESCA has fewer than 10 people in charge of regulating more than 18,000 artisanal fishing boats. It is simply impossible for regulatory institutions to guard marine protected areas, and this is without even considering the presence of illegal boats in the area.

The implementation of marine reserves is certainly a prerequisite step in order to heal and conserve the Mexican Seas. But for these measures to meet their environmental objectives, they require a change in philosophy in how Mexico implements and manages its marine protected areas.

– When good intentions are not enough…Insights on networks of “paper park” marine protected areas
– Biodiversitas, Reservas Marinas
– Analisis de vacíos y omisiones en conservación de la biodiversidad marina de México: océanos, costas e islas.)