Over the past 5 years I have had the privilege of working with some amazing people to get a better handle on how MPAs are doing. This recently culminated in our work appearing in a paper assessing the effectiveness of marine protected areas (MPAs) and offering strategies to increase their ability to protect and increase the abundance of sea life. The findings were published in the journal Nature on March 22nd 2017.
MPAs are a very popular strategy for protecting marine biodiversity, but our study demonstrates that widespread lack of personnel and funds is preventing MPAs from reaching their full potential and is hindering the recovery of fish populations.
While fish populations grew in 71 percent of MPAs studied, as compared with the populations in non-protected areas, the level of recovery of fish was strongly linked to the management of the sites. At MPAs with sufficient staffing, increases in fish populations were nearly three times greater than those without adequate personnel. Despite the critical role of local management capacity, however, only 35 percent of MPAs reported acceptable funding levels, and only 9 percent reported adequate staff to manage the MPA.
Marine protected areas are rapidly expanding in number and total area around the world. In 2011, 193 countries committed themselves to the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets, which included a goal of “effectively and equitably” managing 10 percent of their coastal and marine areas within MPAs and “other effective area-based conservation measures” by 2020. In the last two years alone, over 2.6 million km2 have been added to the portion of the global ocean covered by MPAs, bringing the total to over 14.9 million km2. Countries are continuing to expand their coverage and creating new MPAs to achieve national targets, but this may not meet biodiversity goals.
However, this multinational and multidisciplinary research team used rigorous statistical methods to assess whether the MPAs are meeting their social and ecological objectives and whether they being managed “effectively and equitably.” They were able to identify changes in fish populations attributable to the MPA and not due to other pre-existing factors, such as preferentially locating MPAs where threats are low.
Not only area but also how the area is managed, including how much funding and staffing is assigned to it, is crucial if we expect MPAs to deliver the ecological and social benefits they were designed to produce. It is abundantly clear that we need management that is effective, inclusive and ongoing, #notjustarea, otherwise we risk designating MPAs without benefit to biodiversity—which would be a travesty.
Boris Worm also did a News and Views piece which provides a well-written commentary about issues regarding MPA performance. In addition to these publications, we have other communication materials on the SESYNC website, a blog prepared by Conservation International, and a “behind the paper” blog at the request of Nature Ecology and Evolution. So far, we have received some attention in the media, including articles from Mongabay and Popular Science. The work was also featured by UQNews, UH Manoa and the University of Toronto.