April 28, 2022

The Road to 30×30: The Scope for Malaysia to Increase Coverage of MPAs

By Julian Hyde, General Manager, Reef Check Malaysia

I find myself returning to the discussions surrounding the first draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and how it will affect Malaysia. Given the ambitious targets being discussed for extending marine protection, we need to look at how Malaysia might be able to increase the coverage of protected areas, in line with what is being negotiated at the Convention on Biological Diversity. And it isn’t going to be easy. There seem to be two main issues:

– What is the target and baseline?
– How can we ensure that management is effective in new sites?


Target 3 of the framework stipulates that, by 2030, “at least 30 percent of land areas and of sea areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity are conserved.”

This is the so-called “30×30” target.

The proposed target received opposition from a number of countries, including Malaysia. The argument goes that, since we only achieved half of the Aichi Target for marine protection (approximately 5% of marine areas protected against a target of 10%), how realistic is it that Malaysia could achieve such an ambitious target as 30% of its marine area?

But since the first draft of the framework was published, the discussion has become more nuanced. For example, one interpretation of the 30×30 target is that 30% of the entirety of the world’s ocean should be in protected areas. So, let’s set up a few very large protected areas in the Antarctic Ocean, Pacific, North and South Atlantic…it is easy to envisage several very large protected areas covering 30% of the ocean – in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Job done.

But then…what is Malaysia’s obligation to protect marine ecosystems within its own waters if the 30% target has already been achieved?

So clearly the 30% global target needs to be refined, and perhaps interpreted in a local context. Perhaps the focus should be finding out where these marine ecosystems are actually located and then establishing appropriate protected areas that are scientifically based but also practical. This might allow a target of protecting 30% of our “areas of particular importance for biodiversity”.

In Peninsular Malaysia, this is largely the coastal mangroves, shallow water seagrass beds and coral reefs that surround the islands off the East coast. There are similar small areas of reef off the West coast – around the Sembilan islands, for example. Coral reefs in Sabah and Sarawak are more extensive, including more patch reefs as well as fringing reefs around islands. The two states also have extensive mangroves and seagrass beds, but once again much is found in shallow coastal waters.

So, step one: develop a better map of where these marine resources are, how extensive they are, what condition they are in – and then we can decide the “30% of what?” question. This would have the added benefit of clarifying target 2, which talks about restoring 20% of degraded ecosystems…but if we don’t know how much ecosystem we have, and how much is degraded, how do we know what the 20% is??


Ok, so it is possible to envisage a target which is a realistic interpretation of the 30×30 target. So how are we going to establish and manage new MPAs – and do so effectively?

Marine Parks are long-established at numerous locations along the coastline of Malaysia. In Peninsular Malaysia, the Marine Parks are focused on the islands off the East coast as well as Pulau Payar, near Langkawi. The approach followed involves creating a “no-take zone” of (mainly) 2 nautical miles from the low water mark out to sea – like a 2 nautical mile wide donut around the island. In Sabah and Sarawak, similar protected areas have been established around islands and offshore areas.

But if a significant proportion of “areas of particular importance for biodiversity” are already within these existing protected areas, how will Malaysia increase protected areas, as envisaged in the post-2020 framework? It seems we will have to develop a new approach and look further – to marine ecosystems further off-shore, and wider – to integrate other marine ecosystems into managed areas.

Charts of the waters around Malaysia show plentiful areas where there are shoals that are likely to be home to coral reefs – off Kuantan, for example, but also off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak. These areas – which are likely to be important for biological connectivity between ecosystems, remain largely unprotected. Furthermore, these are only coral reef areas and do not encompass coastal mangroves nor seagrass beds.

The approach used in Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), Sabah, provides a model that might be adapted for use in other parts of Malaysia. TMP is the largest marine protected area in Malaysia. Through a multi-stakeholder consultation process, a system was developed that protects vulnerable ecosystems but also allows for continuing use by local communities. A similar “seascape” approach could be used in other areas – and provides the opportunity to manage marine ecosystems holistically, linking mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs, and protecting biological connectivity between these ecosystems. Such an approach is currently being considered for the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia under a Global Environment Facility-funded project to address trans-boundary fisheries issues in the Gulf of Thailand.

Managing such large areas represents a significant challenge. Many of the existing Marine Parks are relatively small protected areas, mainly focusing on protecting coral reefs. They are on islands that provide a base for a management authority to work from, such as conducting patrols and enforcement activities. Also – many are popular tourism destinations, so funds can be raised from visitors to pay for management. Finally, they are managed by a single agency – Marine Parks section of Department of Fisheries in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah Parks in Sabah and Sarawak Forestry Corporation in Sarawak.

The “seascape” approach considers larger (including remote) areas, multiple stakeholders and multiple uses. Such an approach would cut across jurisdictions – federal and state, agency against agency. It is likely to involve conflicts between different users. It could allow extractive activities such as fishing.

Given that most experience in managing marine protected areas in Malaysia deals with small MPAs around islands, it is clear that existing management approaches are unlikely to be adequate for large marine protected areas – nor would they be effective.

Adopting the “seascape” approach will allow Malaysia to achieve greater protection of marine ecosystems. But it will require new management structures and approaches to cater for the multiplicity of interests that will be encountered.


There are other issues that will need to be addressed as Malaysia looks to protect a larger proportion of its marine estate – such as funding, user conflicts and governance.

But the seascape approach outlined above perhaps creates a framework for proceeding to establish new protected areas that meets several needs – including the drive to improve biodiversity conservation, ensure management effectiveness and consider the demands of multiple users. It is one that has been successful both in Malaysia and internationally (e.g. the Birds Head seascape in Indonesia, the Lau Seascape in Fiji and the Sulu-Sulawesi seascape in Philippines/Malaysia), providing a strong scientific and management basis for progress.