Dogger Bank, a sandbank in the North Sea was designated a marine protected area more than decade ago to conserve its sensitive seabed habitat. Yet for most of that time, industrial fishing vessels legally dragged damaging gear across the seabed, prompting NGOs to cite it as one of Europe’s emblematic “paper parks,” where the designation of MPA had not led to substantive change.

Last year, it finally got some real protection: The U.K. government banned bottom-towed fishing, including bottom trawling, in its section of Dogger Bank, which accounts for two-thirds of the MPA.

“We saw that you could flip from being protected only on paper to being protected in reality,” Thomas Rammelt told Mongabay by phone. Last year Rammelt co-founded the Doggerland Foundation, a Dutch NGO that works on North Sea conservation and has spearheaded discussions on “flipping” parks.

It’s a crucial time for figuring how to make MPAs more effective. At the COP15 U.N. biodiversity summit in December, nearly 200 countries signed a landmark agreement to conserve 30% of Earth’s land and sea by 2030 (“30×30”). If they follow through, this will more than triple MPA coverage within seven years, as current global coverage is less than 10%.

But the hard part is making sure MPAs offer actual ecological protection and socioeconomic benefits. There are already plenty of paper parks around the world that do neither; in many cases, there’s not even a management plan in place or staff ensuring the rules are followed. A study released in May found that 27% of surveyed MPAs were likely paper parks, and the lead author told Mongabay that’s a conservative estimate — the global percentage is probably higher.

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