Madeira & Europe’s Largest Marine Reserve

Madeira’s Selvagens (‘Savage’) Islands are home to Europe’s and the North Atlantic’s largest fully-protected marine reserve. Fully-protected status is rare in marine reserves and means that no extractive activities can take place within its borders. Even just entering the reserve requires a permit. This level of protection and oversight is important because it means the reserve isn’t just ‘on paper’. Its habitats, plant and animal life are truly allowed to recover and, hopefully, prosper.

A satellite tag deployed on a pilot whale at Madeira Island by MARE-Madeira and the Oceanic Observatory of Madeira in early November 2022 showed that the animal moved to the new extended Selvagens MPA where it spent most of its time.

Highly or fully protecting 30% of the ocean may meaningfully help restore the ocean’s biodiversity (Sala, et al., 2021). According to scientific models, this level of protection may also have a positive impact on fisheries by increasing global fish populations. Recognizing these benefits, a goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 was adopted in 2022 by Portugal and the other countries of the Global Ocean Alliance. It’s called “30 by 30”.

The 30×30 goal requires a 10-fold increase in the amount of highly protected waters we have around the world (Marine Protection Atlas). Achieving this will be no small feat. First, it will be a challenge of political will, for negotiations will involve the interests of tourism, fishing, mining, oil and gas and shipping companies. Sitting around those negotiation tables will likely be…intense. Second, it will be a challenge of oversight, for actively managing marine reserves is a relatively new area of law enforcement for most countries. As such, local and national governments will need all the support they can get from their constituents, reassuring them that the outcome is worth the effort.

Video credit: IFCN. Visit the IFCN’s website for more information about the Selvagens MPA.

In November 2021, the Madeira regional government increased the marine protected area around the Selvagens Islands twenty-eight times. Its current area now extends almost 2,700 square kilometers. This is exciting progress and a real victory for ocean conservation. But we still have a ways to go. The Selvagens Marine Reserve now represents 0.2% of Portugal’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and 0.6% of the EEZ around Madeira. If fully protecting 30% of these waters sounds like a big ask — it should. And if fully protecting 30% of the world’s waters sounds like an even bigger ask — it should.

As global citizens and advocates of ocean conservation, we should not expect inertia to carry us through to 2030. Portugal has taken a large step forward to protect the long-term health of our oceans and is accepting the near-term economic risks of restricting access to its resources. But as a global community, we need to build upon this momentum if we are to have any hope of attaining the 30×30 goal and meaningfully protecting life underwater.

Check out our article in Nature about Madeira’s marine reserve here. And learn more about fully protected marine reserves from the World Wildlife Fund’s resource here.