coral reef with fish and light shining through water

Exploring the benefits and beneficiaries of strategic marine conservation


In a time when marine resources are overexploited, protecting areas of the ocean can ensure the prolonged health of natural systems that people rely on. Motivated by this, a growing contingent of NGOs, countries, and civil society organizations have made commitments to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030. For policy makers and practitioners to achieve this goal and identify, create, and fund successful marine protected areas (MPAs), it is crucial to understand the potential benefits and beneficiaries of marine conservation across the globe. However, marine conservation planning rarely considers the multitude of potential benefits provided by protection – including climate change mitigation, food security, tourism and recreation, and coastline protection – which can lead to difficult decisions about which areas to prioritize and an undervaluing of potential investments in marine conservation. 

This project is a multi-year collaboration between emLab and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project with a goal to identify and quantify potential benefits and beneficiaries of marine conservation and the viable financial mechanisms to fund protection.


In the first phase of this project, our team developed a comprehensive conservation planning framework that seeks to maximize the difference made by protection to achieve simultaneous biodiversity, carbon storage, and food provisioning benefits. Expanding on this work, our team is now further including dive tourism and coastal protection benefits in MPA prioritization and exploring private financing opportunities to support marine conservation. 

We are drawing on a wealth of datasets and expertise provided by the members of a global collaboration, and we are leveraging the field of decision-science to develop novel approaches to address pressing marine conservation challenges. Our work is part of a larger program that will ultimately endeavor to turn our results into meaningful marine conservation actions. 

Key Findings

Our results demonstrate how MPAs can be placed strategically to deliver benefits in the form of food provision, biodiversity conservation, and climate change mitigation. Key findings and achievements include:

  • We developed a flexible prioritization framework that can inform national marine spatial plans and global targets for marine conservation, food security, and climate action.
  • A substantial increase in ocean protection could have triple benefits: protecting biodiversity, boosting the yield of fisheries, and securing marine carbon stocks, and that a globally coordinated effort could be nearly twice as efficient as uncoordinated, national-level conservation planning.
  • Strategically expanding the existing global MPA network to protect an additional 5% of the ocean could increase future catch by at least 20% via spillover, generating 9 to 12 million metric tons more food annually than in a business-as-usual world with no additional protection. 
  • The first meter of the seafloor stores twice as much carbon as all terrestrial soils combined. 
  • Industrial bottom trawling fishing fleets operate in less than 1.3% of the seafloor. Yet, by disturbing and oxygenating the sediments and the carbon therein, these fishing fleets may be releasing between 0.6-1.4 billion tons of CO2 into the ocean. This extra CO2 in the water can decrease the ocean’s carbon sequestration potential and increase local acidification.  


This effort is an ongoing collaboration with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project.

Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food, and climate

A ground-breaking scientific study from 26 international experts offering the most comprehensive assessment to date of where to ramp up strict ocean protection to increase seafood security, curb biodiversity loss, and provide a cost effective solution to climate change, as well as economic benefits.