About Sensitive Areas and Species WG3

The scope of this WG is wide and relevant to all the intergovernmental bodies that ACOPS follows. It involves the identification of sensitive species and their habitats as well as the development of policies and regulatory mechanisms to ensure their protection. International policy discussions therefore involve:

    • criteria for the identification of sensitive species and their habitats  (including threatened, endangered, declining or rare species, habitats and ecosystems or those that require protection due to their particular value (such as refuge against climate change);
    • the identification and regulation of Area-Based Management Tools (ABMTs), Other-Effective Conservation Measures (OECMs) and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Navigating the jargon

In a nutshell:


Under international law, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can be defined as a
geographically-defined marine or coastal area, which is designated or regulated and managed to achieve specific conservation objectives.  MPA are often attached to an explicit conservation objective and a preference for preventing all extractive activities although the definition of MPA does not specify activities that could or should be restricted within its boundary.

Larger concepts of Area-Based Management Tools and Area-Based Conservation Measures have developed in the last 10 years (MPAs being only one of them). ABMT also focus on geographically-defined marine or coastal areas. However, they are generally understood through their focus on the management of specific uses  of the sea such as fishing, mining or shipping in order to limit their impact and protect specific components of or the marine environment as a whole.

The new discourses seek to reconcile the conservation discussion on MPAs with the sectoral legal regimes applicable to different activities at sea and restrictions to these activities. Read a paper on this new discourse in the context of the South China Sea.

Why they matter

The compounded impact of competing activities at sea, pollution of the sea, coastal developments , overfishing and climate change (to cite a few) point to the need to urgently and globally decrease impacts from human activities on oceans to ensure the sustainability of ocean systems and that they can continue to provide the services humans expect from them and rely on.

MPAs, OECM and ABMTs can provide refuge for threatened and endangered marine biodiversity, as well as serving as scientific reference areas. They can also help marine areas and the species they support remain or become more resilient to global change.

A 10% global target for MPA coverage has been set by the Convention on Biological Diversity and in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS), including SDG 14 on life below water.

However, once a marine area has been designated as an MPA (at international, regional or domestic level),  effective restrictions to human activities in this area in order to decrease their environmental impact require the consultation of a number of competent sectoral organisations and administrations.

ACOPS Activities

ACOPS works to overcome the frequent difficulty encountered in proving the direct causality between a particular activity and the overall degradation of an area or an ecosystem. High research costs involved in bringing this proof are also a critical element. We rely on international law, sound science and pragmatism to emphasize the need for caution, application of the precautionary approach and of the realization of a cumulative impact assessment to be included in the regulation of sectors of activities at sea.

There are significant knowledge gaps concerning those species and habitats worthy of protection at international and regional levels but work is underway to develop ecologically coherent networks of ABMTs (including MPAs) in many international and inter-governmental bodies.

Many of the international organisations that ACOPS works with have their own system to set aside areas for marine protection (e.g. IMO, OSPAR, ISA).

ACOPS aims to continue help States and relevant international and regional organisations work towards meeting their commitments under Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 and Sustainable Development Goal 14.5, in accordance with international marine environmental law including the law of the sea and on the basis of sound science. Two examples are (1) a report on the potential for international shipping measures in marine areas identified as Ecologically or Biologically Sensitive Areas and (2) a mapping of sensitive areas under international law in Southeast Asia.