Marine protected areas: do they work?

13 08 2010

One measure that often meets great resistance from fishermen, but is beloved by conservationists, is the establishment of marine protected or ‘no take’ areas.” Stephen J. Hall (1998)

I’m going to qualify this particular post with a few disclaimers; first, I am not involved in the planning of any marine protected areas (henceforth referred to as ‘marine parks’) in Australia or elsewhere; and second, despite blogging on the issue, I have never published in the discipline of protected area design (i.e, ‘conservation planning’ is not my area of expertise).

That said, it seems to becoming more imperative that I enter the fray and assess not only how marine parks should be designed, but how effective they really are (or can be). I’ve been asked by several conservation NGOs to provide some insight into this, so I thought I should ‘think aloud’ and blog a little mini-review about marine park effectiveness.

Clearly there is a trend to establish more marine parks around the world, and this is mainly because marine conservation lags so far behind terrestrial conservation. Indeed, Spalding et al. (2008) showed that only 4.1 % of continental shelf areas are incorporated within marine parks, and ~ 50 % of all marine ecoregions have less than 1 % marine park coverage across the shelf. Furthermore, marine protection is greatest in the tropical realms, while temperate realms are still poorly represented.

The question of whether marine parks ‘work’ is, however, more complicated than it might first appear. When one asks this question, it is essential to define how the criteria for success are to be measured. Whether it’s biodiversity protection, fisheries production, recreational revenue, community acceptance/involvement or some combination of the above, your conclusion is likely to vary from place to place.

Other complications are, of course, that if you cannot ensure a marine park is adequately enforced (i.e., people don’t respect the rules) or if you don’t actually place the park anywhere near things that need protecting, there will be no real net benefit (for any of the above-mentioned interest groups). Furthermore, most marine parks these days have many different types of uses allowed in different zones (e.g., no fishing, some fishing, recreational diving only, no boat transport, some shipping, etc., etc., etc.), so it gets difficult to test for specific effects (it’s a bit like a cap-and-trade legislation for carbon – too many rules and often no real net reduction in carbon emissions – but that’s another story).

All these conditions aside, I think it’s a good idea to present what the real experts have been telling us about marine park effectiveness from a biodiversity and fishing perspective over the last decade or so. I’ll summarise some of the major papers here and give an overall assessment at the end. I do not contend that this list is even remotely comprehensive, but it does give a good cross-section of the available evidence. Read the rest of this entry »