The economic benefits of marine protected areas in Europe

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are an important policy tool for protecting vulnerable marine and coastal species and habitats. By supporting the resilience of ecosystems, MPAs may also maintain and generate goods and services that can benefit different sectors in the “blue” European economy. However, MPAs are often seen as primarily imposing restrictions and costs on economic activities, creating aversion toward their establishment and protection.

It is important to improve our understanding of the links between MPAs and local users and acknowledge that people and local communities are a key part of achieving an overall sustainable use of the seas. A better understanding of these linkages may help to plan and manage MPAs so that the flow of benefits – to the environment and to society – are maximised. It can also help build local support, buy-in and innovation and, ultimately, encourage people to comply with the site’s rules.

IEEP, together with ICF and PML, has produced a comprehensive review of evidence showing benefits from MPAs and other spatial protection measures (SPMs) (including so-called ‘de facto refuges’) to fisheries, maritime tourism and other blue economy sectors in Europe.

The report has been prepared as part of a two-year research study for the European Commission, seeking to map the evidence base on real economy (direct use) benefits of MPAs. The report also identified best practices in terms of measures that enable the realisation of such benefits, including means of addressing stakeholder conflicts and encouraging cross-sector synergies, while making sure that economic activities are compatible with MPA conservation objectives.

The report concludes that MPAs and SPMs can provide benefits to the fisheries and tourism sectors, in particular to divers and to fishermen using static gear targeting low-mobility and benthic species. However, there are significant data gaps and very few studies are able to compare before and after designation or analyse the net impacts on economic sectors.

A vast majority of the European evidence is from MPAs in the Mediterranean or North-east Atlantic seas. Available evidence of economic benefits to fishermen focus on spillover effects from “no-take zones”, including examples of increased catch in surrounding fished areas for a range of gear types and target species. For the tourism sector, we found several examples of MPAs generating an increase in the number of visitors and related local business opportunities. We found no studies looking at benefits provided by MPAs to other blue economy sectors, and the report discusses why this might be.

With regard to ensuring a sustainable use of sites, we found a range of examples of how maritime tourism can be managed to avoid overexploitation of sites, including communication activities, eco-tourism certification and ensuring effective implementation of management plans. There is also evidence of stakeholder support growing as a result of more active involvement and participation in the MPA management, learning from peers in other MPAs and from watching benefits accrue over time.

Finally, the report identifies and analyses studies which have tried to compare costs and benefits of MPAs and SPMs. It finds that monetary valuation of costs is generally more complete than for benefits, and that a large proportion of the benefits accounted for relate to non-marketed improvements in welfare. Nonetheless, the studies that have been carried out so far conclude that the overall welfare benefits of MPAs exceed their total costs.

As the first implementation cycle of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is coming to an end in 2020 and the establishment of maritime spatial plans in the EU continues, IEEP’s study provides useful insights about the links between economic sectors and spatial conservation measures at sea. Meanwhile, the marine Natura 2000 network continues to expand and improve. Our results can inform an integrated approach to nature conservation that realises that long-term protection of the oceans involves finding ways of reconciling economic use and robust nature protection measures.

The literature review report, as well as the other four project reports (stakeholder consultation report, case study report, final report and abridged final report) can all be accessed via the EU bookshop:


For more information, please contact Mia Pantzar and Daniela Russi.