Science reveals that Portugal is failing on the goals for the protection of the ocean

By Bárbara Horta e Costa (CCMAR, UAlg) and Emanuel Gonçalves (Fundação Oceano Azul and MARE-ISPA)


Science sustains today, clearly and factually, that we are facing a climate emergency and a crisis of endangered species. We may no longer claim ignorance about the state of the global environment, particularly the ocean. Scientists have been proposing solutions to protect and recuperate the ocean for decades, like in the case of Marine Protected Areas. Therefore, it is urgent that we try to implement these solutions.


We already know that Marine Protected Areas are the most effective way to protect and restore the ocean. With high levels of protection and ways to manage, they protect the species, recuperate the fisheries, and reduce the impacts of human activities. The international commitments with the ocean that passes by the creation of Marine Protected Areas have existed for over 30 years. Recently, the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 was launched, which obliges the European countries to protect 30% of their seas, 10% of which should be totally protected. Nevertheless, these numbers are far from being reached and many of the Marine Protected Areas do not work.


To solve this flaw and bring transparency to the public debate about the strategies of conservation, an MPA Guide (‘Guia de Áreas Marinhas Protegidas’) was created. Published this Thursday in the scientific magazine Science and developed in a collaborative and multidisciplinary way by the authors of this article and for more than 40 specialists in marine conservation worldwide. The MPA Guide uniformizes the language and clarifies the level of the protection and the state of the implementation of the Marine Protected Areas, showing what we can expect of each of them. It is an essential tool of transparency, evaluation, and communication about the protection of the ocean which allows to evaluate the situation of each country.


In Portugal there are 72 Marine Protected Areas (excluding the ones from Rede Natura 2000 that don’t have management plans or regulation) that cover only 2,1% of the territorial sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone (6,4% if we consider the extension of the continental platform, where there are large areas but protecting only the marine resources). When applying the MPA Guide, we understand that only 0,001% of the Portuguese sea has no fishing areas and that they only find high levels of protection in 0,6% of our sea. So, it is precisely the Marine Protected Areas that allows to protect the environment and recover the fishery resources.


We conclude that many of Marine Protected Areas in Portugal do not protect as much as they should. Besides this weak regulation, most of them are not implemented, exist only on paper and do not have the financing or human resources or adequate mechanisms of monitorization and management. These failures are not visible for society due to the lack of transparency and mechanisms of evaluation. The Marine Protected Areas become in this way tools of little use that disappoint people.


Portugal has failed on the goal of the protection of 10% of its sea in 2020 and is far away from the 30% of Marine Protected Areas that it has committed until 2030. Also it is even further from achieving at least 20% of the high protection or having the majority of his areas implemented. Meanwhile, the indicators of degradation of the marine ecosystems and their species are accumulating.


Portugal, the richest country of Europe in natural marine capital, must review its strategy of conservation of the ocean and increase the total Marine Protected Areas. It is therefore urgent to increase the level of protection and guarantee the effectiveness and implementation of the existent areas. Portugal has conditions to lead the European agenda of marine conservation which would also be in its own interests. We must assume that this leadership implies investing in qualified human resources, in vigilance and monitorization and an effective management plan. This choice will have in return the valorization and recuperation of our main strategy.