MCA Toolkit


Over the past several years, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have realized that the creation of formally protected areas may not be sufficient to protect the ocean and coastal biodiversity, particularly in areas where rights have already been granted to specific owners and users. To address this, NGOs are increasingly integrating Marine Conservation Agreements (MCAs) into ocean and coastal protection efforts to provide greater surety of long-term success.

This overview introduces the MCA concept. For more overview information on MCAs, see the sub-sections on Basics, Myths, and Definitions.

What are Marine Conservation Agreements?

MCAs are defined as:

Any formal or informal contractual arrangement that aims to achieve ocean or coastal conservation goals in which one or more parties (usually right-holders) voluntarily commit to taking certain actions, refraining from certain actions, or transferring certain rights and responsibilities in exchange for one or more other parties (usually conservation-oriented entities) voluntarily committing to deliver explicit (direct or indirect) economic incentives.

The above MCA definition has seven distinct elements, which include:

  1. any formal or informal contractual arrangement that
  2. aims to achieve ocean or coastal conservation goals in which
  3. one or more parties (usually right-holders)
  4. voluntarily commit to
    • taking certain actions,
    • refraining from certain actions, or
    • transferring certain rights and responsibilities
  5. in exchange for
  6. one or more other parties (usually conservation-oriented entities)
  7. voluntarily committing to deliver explicit (direct or indirect) economic incentives.

These seven elements not only form the definition of MCAs but also establish the sub-steps within the Field Guide’s Phase 1 Feasibility Analysis, thereby establishing the enabling conditions for MCAs. Within each of the seven elements, there are several variables which can be mixed and matched to meet the specific needs of a wide variety of implementing entities in a diverse range of ocean and coastal conservation efforts.

The summary table below identifies the major elements and variables of MCAs. MCAs can be entered into by governments, communities, private entities, and private individuals. They are based on agreed upon terms and conditions, are often bottom-up approaches, and include quid-pro-quo incentives wherein all parties receive benefits.

1. Agreement Mechanisms *2. Conservation Goals **3. Right-holders ***4. Conservation Commitments ****6. Conservation Entities ***7. Economic Incentives ****
Formal: Purchase & Sale AgreementsLeasesLicensesPermitsConcessionsEasementsContracts
Informal: HandshakesLettersMemorandums of UnderstandingMemorandums of AgreementCooperative AgreementsCo-management AgreementsVerbal Understandings
Restore and protect reefsRecover and manage fisheries sustainablyProtect shorelineConserve biodiversityPreserve cultural sitesPromote sustainable tourismOwners, Managers, or Users:Government agenciesPrivate individuals and familiesOrganized community or user groupsBusinessesTake actions:Patrol areasRestore habitatDevelop management plan
Refrain from actions:Stop fishingStop using destructive gearStop turtle harvesting
Transfer rights/ responsibilities:Management rightsTourism rightsFishing rights
NGOsBusinessesGovernmentsCommunity groupsCashGrantsEmploymentSocial ServicesInfrastructureTrainingSuppliesEquipment
5. An Exchange
* Can be a defined term or undefined term; can be long-term (over 10 years) or short-term (less than 10 years).
** Constitute the desired project outcomes.
*** Make up the parties to the agreement.
**** Make up the assured project benefits for both parties.

Common examples of MCAs include leases, licenses, easements, management agreements, purchase and sale agreements, concessions, and contracts. NGOs have used MCAs to help manage specific areas, harvesting methods, and access to resources. These efforts have protected important marine biodiversity while positioning NGOs as vested and solution-oriented stakeholders with governments and communities responsible for decision-making.

One confusing issue regarding MCAs is that existing programmatic and project-specific efforts that likely fall under the MCA definition are often called different things by different organizations. For example, the following programmatic efforts are all very similar and more or less meet the definition of MCAs:

  • Conservation Agreements (or CAs) led by Conservation International (CI)
  • Payments for Marine Ecosystem Services (or MPES) led by Forest Trends
  • Translinks led by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS); and simply
  • Agreements led by Seacology

The existence and use of these different terms that essentially mean the same thing is often not helpful and can be confusing to conservation practitioners. As such, practitioners would do well to understand the similarities and differences between the terms, appropriately identify and appreciate the perspectives of their own target audiences for different outreach efforts, and then determine which term may or may not resonate best with those audiences. In some cases, none of the terms may resonate with target audiences; in such cases a new or different term should be used.

Compounding the confusing effect of the many programmatic efforts as identified above using varying terms to describe similar things, many practitioners who are responsible for implementing field projects that meet the definition of MCAs do not identify or otherwise describe their projects as such. Many practitioners successfully work at field sites in isolation from global programmatic efforts related to MCAs. In the grand scheme of things, there is nothing wrong with or detrimental to these field projects in doing so; practitioners do not need to identify themselves as being affiliated with one or more of the MCA-related programmatic efforts.

The hope is, however, that these field projects and others have opportunities to learn from or otherwise benefit from the collective programmatic efforts. Also, recognizing that these field projects are part of a larger, thematically consistent set of efforts enhances the potential for effecting policy change, attracting finance, catalyzing replication, and scaling up.

International Treaties and Conventions

International treaties and conventions that address ocean management and conservation issues have also been referred to as Marine Conservation Agreements1, or as International Ocean Agreements. This toolkit does not discuss or label these types of broader, nation-to-nation agreements since they are typically high-level, top-down, and do not include NGOs and local users as potential signatories.

Similarity with Terrestrial and Freshwater Strategies

MCAs are in many ways quite similar to the widely used and understood conservation practices that employ traditional upland acquisitions, conservation easements and freshwater rights acquisitions. Upland acquisitions, conservation easements and MCAs all give grantees (i.e., conservation organizations) the right to protect or direct management of sites and habitat features that may otherwise be degraded from destructive human activities and development. Similar to freshwater rights acquisitions in which water is left in streams for conservation purposes, MCAs establish conservation (i.e., no use in the minds of some) as a legitimate use that can be acquired or directed.

The obvious difference between MCAs and upland acquisitions and conservation easements is that MCAs are applied to areas lying under ocean and coastal waters—areas normally viewed as open to free and unfettered access by the public. In many (but not all) cases, MCAs are applied to areas that are publicly-owned or managed. When applied to public areas, MCAs differ from upland acquisitions and conservation easements in that the public may continue to have rights to the areas, the agreements typically have a specific term (or time period) associated with them and they usually require some form of active, participatory management, as opposed to simply preventing property from being developed.

Relationship between MCAs and MPAs

Marine Conservation Agreements and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are different, but can often lead to the similar things. Formal MPAs are often established by government entities through law or policy. Conversely, MCAs are established between different entities, usually a resource owner or user and an NGO. Both MPAs and MCAs, however, can be used to protect specific sites and resources. MCAs can also be used to complement and augment the number and effectiveness of formal MPAs when the establishment of additional MPAs is not possible. Under some circumstances, MCAs can be used as catalysts for the formal establishment of MPAs or can provide a mechanism for local stakeholder involvement in collaborative management of MPAs.

MCA Field Projects

There are numerous existing MCA projects throughout the globe. One of the best known MCA projects is the Chumbe Island Coral Park in Tanzania. Other examples include The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) 13,000-acre Great South Bay Project on Long Island, New York, and the 180,000 sq km Phoenix Island Protected Area which was established in part based on a “reverse fishing license”—an agreement being developed by the Government of Kiribati, Conservation International (CI), and the New England Aquarium. For additional projects, see the Field Projects in the toolkit.

Current Limitations and Strategic Next Steps

Although the potential application of MCAs is broad and significant, the strategy is currently underutilized. This is due in part to the fact that MCA practitioners do not generally communicate among each other for information exchange or collaboration. As a result, MCAs remain insufficiently understood and applied by the marine conservation community. To reverse this, TNC and partners are working to:

  • Promote a willingness to pay for conservation: We must develop, advertise and make available economic markets for biodiversity conservation, which will require NGOs to be intermediaries between the global demand and potential suppliers of biodiversity conservation services.
  • Undertake demonstration projects: The most effective way to spread awareness of MCAs and persuade various stakeholders of its promise is to continue implementing pilot projects. Additional successes will broaden financial support for MCAs among donors, encourage governments to embrace the tool in policies and legislation, cultivate implementation capacity within the conservation NGO community, and build confidence among local communities that participating in conservation can yield tangible benefits.
  • Educate donors: In the short term, the greatest constraint to the application of MCAs may be funding, especially in terms of the types of funding available for conservation. We must promote awareness of the long-term recurrent costs of conservation management among the donor community, placing a strong emphasis on the essential role of dedicated endowments to support individual projects into the distant future.
  • Exploit development synergies: Given that many sites of conservation interest are in poor rural areas that are also of interest to development institutions, there is significant potential for collaboration with other NGOs, government bodies, and bilateral or multilateral agencies receiving development funding. Scaling up the use of MCAs will benefit greatly from concerted efforts to seek out opportunities for collaboration with mainstream development organizations.
  • Foster communication and consistency: The concerns raised about MCAs often reflect misunderstandings about the approach. Therefore it is important that organizations working on MCAs continuously engage each other, other conservation organizations and governments to ensure clear and consistent articulation of the rationale and application of the tool.
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