Very large marine protected areas (VLMPAs) are being increasingly exploited by developed countries to help reach percentage area-based marine conservation targets. They are often located in overseas territories or remote offshore islands, where populations are low, and threats to these ecosystems are minimal. Examples of such MPAs are: the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, New Caledonia (special collectivity of France, largest in the world); Chagos Marine Protected Area, Chagos Archipelago (British overseas territory, 5th largest in the world); South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands MPA (British overseas territory, 3rd largest in the world); and Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (US overseas territory, 9th largest in the world). Together the ten largest MPAs in the world make up over half of the ocean area protected.
It is important not to overstate the value of these VLMPAs for conservation. Doing so would lead us to the conclusion that President George W. Bush has made some of the most significant contributions to global marine conservation this century. Towards the end of his term he implemented a group of huge MPAs, including the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument. Together these MPAs protect 1.6 million square kilometres of ocean. However, we must not let these MPAs skew our perception of global progress. Although these VLMPAs are vast, many of the islands they surround are virtually uninhabited, and, accordingly, are hardly subjected to threats from fishing, pollution or habitat destruction.
Much of the research by the Conservation Planning Group emphasises the importance of measuring success in conservation in terms of “impact”. To have an impact we must reduce overall losses in biodiversity. So, we must ask the question, how useful are large, offshore MPAs for reducing the loss of biodiversity?