How marine protected areas benefit people who live nearby

Turtle swimming

The ecological benefits of marine protected areas (MPAs) are well-documented. By limiting fishing and other human activities, MPAs can stabilize fish stocks, protect marine species, restore the resiliency of mangroves, and more. But do those gains come at a cost to local people—or contribute to their incomes, diets, and food security?


Households near MPAs with strict fishing limits are 33% wealthier than households at a greater distance.


Decreased likelihood of stunting (impaired growth and development) in children living within about six miles of MPAs compared to those living farther away.


Increased abundance of fish in fully protected areas of the Mesoamerican Reef compared with unprotected areas, according to a recent analysis coauthored by WWF researchers.

Map of MesoAmerican reef area

The Mesoamerican Reef supports 500 fish species; 60 coral species; and animals such as saltwater crocodiles, manatees, and hawksbill sea turtles.

To answer that question, researchers recently examined ecological and socioeconomic data—including fish abundance, household wealth, and malnutrition—from studies of more than 40 MPAs and nearby communities along the Honduran and Guatemalan stretches of the Mesoamerican Reef, an ecosystem that supports the livelihoods of over 2 million people.

They found that the more restrictions on fishing, the better. Not only are fish more abundant in fully protected zones, but wealth is also 33% higher in communities within about six miles of highly protected MPAs. Moreover, young children living near MPAs are around half as likely to have stunted growth due to malnutrition.

While more research is needed to determine what’s driving social benefits, the study provides evidence that MPAs with strict fishing limits—used in tandem with other conservation strategies—can promote human well-being in coastal areas.

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues