Analysis of Two Decades of Research on Marine Protected Areas in Malaysia (2001-2020): Knowledge Gap and Future Research Direction

Review Article

Austin Environ Sci. 2022; 7(3): 1078.

Analysis of Two Decades of Research on Marine Protected Areas in Malaysia (2001-2020): Knowledge Gap and Future Research Direction

Ismail MS¹* and Goeden GB²

¹Fisheries Research Institute, Department of Fisheries, Malaysia

²Blue Planet Environment PLT, Malaysia

*Corresponding author: Mohamad Saupi Ismail, Fisheries Research Institute, Department of Fisheries, 11960 Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

Received: June 20, 2022; Accepted: July 21, 2022; Published: July 28, 2022


The Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Malaysia was first recognised through the establishment of marine parks in the 90’s. This study provides analyses of the scientific literature on Malaysia’s MPAs published from 2001 to 2020, and discusses research trends, major knowledge gaps and directions for future research. To do so, a total of 113 selected scientific publications were analysed. The volume of research has increased rapidly in the last decade with the number of publications per year increasing from 1 in 2001 to 11 in 2020. Three main research indicators i. e. Biophysical, Socio-economic and Governance were used. The Biophysical indicator reveals great disparity with the majority of research focused on aspects of coral biology. Results also indicate that academic research has shown significant advances in the number of Socio-economic studies. Research was concentrated in three locations, i. e. Pulau Tioman, Pulau Redang and Pulau Payar. According to the bibliometric analysis, the top productive institutions were led by the Universiti Putra Malaysia. This study also addresses the research gap, explores new research opportunities and suggests future research directions for MPAs. The innovative technology element was identified as one of the priorities in future research. The current analysis highlighted the importance of collaboration and suggested that partnerships promoting synergistic activities between academic research institutes and the government sector could be the key to enhance and optimise the function of MPAs. In carrying out this review, the authors hope to 1.) Provide insight into the studies performed in MPAs of Malaysia, 2.) categorize areas where research has been conducted and also areas of concern or lacking data, and 3.) assist in guiding future research programs, for better understanding and management of the marine parks.

Keywords: Marine park; Academic research; Bibliometric; Biophysical; Socio-economic; Governance


Globally, the future of coral reefs is threatened with environmental degradation affecting the sustainability of reef ecosystems. Broad expectations have been placed on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as instruments to protect and/or restore marine biodiversity and ecosystem function [1]. Thus, research is vital in MPAs if Malaysia is to achieve these goals.

At present, there are 42 islands and their surrounding waters that have been gazetted as MPAs in Malaysia. These MPAs are being managed using the Fisheries Act of1985 [2,3] and form huge warehouses that host treasures like coral, fish, unique habitats, etc. that help to define the health and wealth of the nation [4]. The Government of Malaysia plans to establish more marine parks to conserve these marine treasures. With more than 3, 600 km² of coral reef areas, the main objectives of MPAs are to protect the coral reef ecosystems from fishing and other harmful activities and safeguard the sustainable development of marine resources [2,5].

For successful MPA plans and actions, the perception of marine conservation issues must raise awareness on a broader management level. One of the factors that restrict effective decision-making in adaptively managing MPAs is a lack of information about the status and natural conditions of the MPAs [1]. After more than 20 years of MPA operation, there was a need to review the scope of studies carried out and designate priority areas for future research. Bibliometric analysis is an approach that analyses the worldwide scientific production of research findings, providing information on the research trends and future directions within specific research field [6].

Earlier investigations on Malaysian reefs, before the year 2000, focused on coral reef ecosystem [7]. In-depth research on reefs was restricted to the studies of selected marine park areas, such as Pulau (= island) Payar [8]. Previous studies of MPAs have been limited by the lack of sound designs and the absence of long-term monitoring data.

The goal of this study is to provide insights into the current status of research in MPAs by grouping topics into clusters of research areas. Also, this study aims to illuminate the impacts of academic research in these protected areas, to highlight potential challenges and to identify research priorities that can enhance the relevance of research in current and future studies for sustainable management of coral reefs. The review could serve as a basis in fortifying the future direction of research on MPAs.

Materials and Methods

A literature search was conducted, from April to December 2021, using two commonly used databases of Web of Sciences and Google Scholar to collect all references related to Malaysia’s MPAs. Additionally, searches of the Department of Fisheries’ internal databases were carried out to ensure all relevant papers were acquired. Keywords are fundamental to the bibliographic search of academic literature. The terms of search were the 42 names of the marine park islands (e.g., Payar, Redang, Tioman etc.), “Marine Park” and “MPA”. More than two hundred publications were retrieved. However, only peer-reviewed scientific journals, published between 2001 to 2020, were used for the analyses. Each was screened individually to determine whether it was within the scope of this study and focused on research directly related to MPAs. Excluded references were nonrelevant studies that had been conducted outside the context of the coral reef ecosystem (e.g., terrestrial flora and fauna), conference papers and duplicated studies published in different journals.

Data for each publication was imported into Microsoft Excel for further analysis. These were included in a table containing date of publication, area of study, subject matter, author’s affiliation, title and other related information. Each paper was then categorised using indicators used by the IUCN [1]. Three indicators were selected for assignment to each reference; Biophysical, Socio-economic and Governance. These indicators were also used by Kamil et al. [9] to assess the marine management strategy for MPAs in Southeast Asia. For the purposes of this report, the Biophysical indicator is further divided into the following topics; coral, fish, water quality, other reef community and other studies.

Studies addressing several MPAs (more than three) and “broad scope” publications addressing MPAs in a general way (e.g., did not specify any MPA in particular), were registered as “ALL”. It should be noted that several publications discuss more than one MPA, and thus such sources were utilised in multiple sections.

Overall scientific production on MPAs per year was used to assemble charts showing annual frequency distribution histogram and cumulative production. The percentage of the most studied area and research fields was calculated, as well as the total number of publications produced. Additional histograms of frequency distribution were made to highlight the agencies producing the greatest number of publications, as well as which MPAs have been addressed in scientific literature across different research fields.

As the result of this review, knowledge gaps and research opportunities were identified and guidelines for future studies are presented.


From 2001 to 2020, a total of 113 journal articles were published that related to this search. In the first decade, a smaller number of publications per year were observed, (3 or less papers), except in 2009. Entering the second decade, the annual publication rate increased adding significantly to the cumulative total publications. In 2013, the number of annual publications exceeded 10 for the first time. The greatest number of publications was in 2019 (Figure 1). The last decade’s publication on MPA corresponded to 84. 07% (95 publications) of the total publications since 2001. Importantly, the last 5 years (2016 to 2020) recorded more than 50% of the total publications. These findings depict the strong and growing interest in MPA research in recent years.