IMPAC4 celebrates marine protected areas and communities

By Lauren Wenzel

October 2017

Twenty years ago, a conference of protected area managers would have focused almost entirely on the health of species and ecosystems in these ocean parks. Today, common sense and social science have both taught us that the well-being of protected areas and local communities and cultures are intertwined.

woman at a podium at left with additional people on stage at right
Angélica Méndez, a community leader from Guatemala, speaks at the opening ceremony, observed by a Rapa Nui community group. Photo: Gonzalo Cid/NOAA

There are many types of marine protected areas. Some, like national marine sanctuaries, protect areas of natural and cultural importance while also supporting sustainable recreation and other uses. Marine protected areas range from tiny to vast, span a range of habitats, and vary in terms of their management approaches. But they all have one thing in common: a shared connection to their local communities.

Sharing lessons and experiences on these interconnections between people and protected areas was the focus of the 4th International Marine Protected Areas Congress (known to the marine protected area community as IMPAC4). The Congress, which was held this September in Coquimbo, Chile, drew over 1,100 marine protected area experts and partners from 59 countries for five intense days of workshops, symposia, knowledge sharing, celebrations, and networking.

seven peopple pose for a photo in rapa nui
NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, National Park Service, and Department of State delegation team stands with Mahani Teave (back center), a renowned pianist from Rapa Nui, and staff from the music, art, and environmental nonprofit “Toki” in Rapa Nui. Photo: Gonzalo Cid/NOAA

One of the stories shared was the growing partnership between two islands linked by a common culture and heritage. In September 2016, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument hosted a visit with community leaders from Rapa Nui (Easter Island). That hospitality was returned during a visit in August 2017 from a Hawaiian delegation to Rapa Nui to share the lessons Papahānaumokuākea and the National Park Service have learned about co-management and engagement with the Native Hawaiian community. Immediately following that visit, the people of Rapa Nui voted to establish a new marine protected area in their waters, co-managed with the Government of Chile. NOAA will continue to support Rapa Nui and Chile as they implement this new MPA.

john armor signs agreement
John Armor, director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, signs the 5-year extension of the agreement between Chile and the United States on behalf of the National Ocean Service. Photo: Gonzalo Cid/NOAA

The news from Rapa Nui helped set the tone for a week focused on how the ocean sustains people, and people sustain the ocean. Staff from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries were there to share our experiences in working with local communities and other stakeholders. Director John Armor moderated a plenary session on marine protected areas and communities, emphasizing the importance of “building bridges” between protected areas and local communities. Felipe Paredes, former mayor of the Juan Fernández Archipelago in Chile which led the establishment of the Juan Fernández Sea marine protected area, emphasized, “Don’t tell communities what to do. Ask ‘how can we help you?’”

a panel discussion on stage
John Armor presents at and moderates the IMPAC4 plenary on Community Engagement of marine protected areas. Photo: Gonzalo Cid/NOAA

Regional marine protected area networks were another type of community that had a strong presence at IMPAC4. These networks help managers exchange knowledge and experience and connect site managers to key policy discussions happening at the national, regional, and global scales. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has been actively engaged with regional networks in the Caribbean and North America for many years, which are now connecting across the Atlantic to partners in the Mediterranean and West Africa to manage migratory species and address common challenges like climate impacts. Our capacity building team also met with many partners around the world to discuss how we can help train managers and share lessons learned.

Community engagement can occur at all scales, from the smallest local marine protected area to the large-scale areas that have emerged as a major ocean conservation trend over the past decade. Often encompassing huge remote areas, managers from these marine protected areas are looking at a wide range of tools — from community-based education to telepresence — to engage people. The Marquesas, part of French Polynesia, sent their “smallest ocean managers” — a group of students from the islands — to IMPAC4 to share their commitment to protecting their culture and ocean through both large and small marine protected areas.

Congratulations to our friends in Chile for hosting a great meeting, and look forward to seeing more great progress in establishing and managing our marine protected areas by the time we meet for IMPAC5 in Vancouver in 2021!

Lauren Wenzel is the director of the National Marine Protected Areas Center.