Marine Reserve of Llevant, Majorca. | Sebastia Torrens

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are essentially created for two reasons. One is to increase fish stocks and improve the economic performance of the fisheries sector.

This is the case of the 11 marine reserves in the Balearics, of which two – Sa Dragonera and Llevant – are jointly designated with Madrid, and a third one (Tramuntana) is awaiting confirmation. We hope further designations will follow in Ibiza (Tagomago extension), Formentera and Minorca.

The other purpose of MPAs is the conservation of biodiversity, habitats and species of high ecological value. This category includes national parks such as Cabrera; natural parks such as Ses Salines in Ibiza, s’Albufera des Grau in Minorca or Es Trenc in Mallorca, all natural reserves and marine ‘Natura 2000’ sites designated under the EU Habitats and Bird directives.

The good news is that these two objectives mutually reinforce each other. A marine reserve created with fishing objectives in mind benefits the conservation of habitats and species and vice versa.

The other good news is that as well as these evident benefits, reserves offer many other goods and services. They generate value and opportunities for the development of economic activities such as diving, sailing and education in nature;

they have become a tourist attraction that can generate direct and indirect benefits for commerce, hospitality and the local economy; and they’re also a source of enjoyment, leisure and wellbeing for both residents and tourists.

To maximise all of these benefits we need to invest. Management and research programmes are necessary for solid follow-up after designation, effective monitoring, good governance and, above all, appropriate financing.

Astrospartus mediterraneus, a type of starfish that lives in deep seabeds, often amongst seafans

Our research shows that the network of marine protected areas has produced good results. In some marine reserves such as El Toro, the quantity of commercial fish species has multiplied more than six-fold and so has the diversity of species. However, our analysis also shows that its effectiveness still remains well below its potential.

Improving the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas is a challenge that requires the participation of multiple stakeholders, from fisheries managers and researchers to divers and fishermen amongst many others.

It is within this context that in 2018 Marilles established the MPA LABs: multidisciplinary working groups that meet periodically on each island to find ways to improve the condition of MPAs in the Balearics. This group is open to all organisations that share the goal of improving MPAs.

To date, eight MPA LABs have been held on each island (24 in total as Ibiza and Formentera are done jointly) and have had ever increasing number of participants, including representatives from national Madrid based institutions which are obviously a key piece of the equation.

These working groups provide a great opportunity for exchanging information, defining strategies and identifying interventions to make the MPAs better managed and more effective. The stimulus provided by MPA Labs has encouraged an increasingly proactive, solutions-focused approach among all members of the working group.

Through collective wisdom we identify practical solutions to overcome the barriers that prevent MPAs from delivering at their full potential. A key topic discussed has been the design of an MPA indicator system to track and measure progress and impact from MPAs across the Balearics.

Conversations have also focussed on the need for additional funding to ensure MPAs function properly, something that should be at the heart of the Balearics Economic Recovery strategy as stated in previous articles.

At our last MPA LAB we talked about how to achieve the goals set by the European Biodiversity Strategy, which Spain has strongly supported, and which requires member states to designate 30% of their sea as a Marine Protected Area and at least 10% of marine area under a strict level of protection.

The Covid pandemic has meant that the last three MPA LAB meetings have been virtual. This has had an unexpected positive effect, increasing levels of participation and allowing people from different islands learn more about what is going on on the neighbouring MPAs. But obviously we have lost the priceless warmth of meeting face-to-face. We hope that 2021 will allow us to get back to normal.