Are marine protected areas protecting the places that need protecting?

Marine protected areas (MPAs).  They sound like a pretty good thing for biodiversity conservation…right?  As always the devil is in the detail.  It first starts with what a MPA actually is.  Well we have already stumbled into slightly tricky ground here, because there is not one single globally recognised definition of MPAs.  For arguments sake we’ll go with the International Union for Conservation of Nature definition: “A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”

Ok… seems pretty straightforward, but look carefully - it’s a little vague isn’t it.  What are these ‘other effective means’ that you can manage the area?  What about the phrase ‘long-term’ – what scale are we talking here?  What do we do if there is conflict between ‘ecosystem services and cultural values’?  The IUCN have categorised MPAs into seven different types, based on the primary management objective of the area.  These range from fully protected areas where no extraction of any kind is allowed, right down to “sustainable use” zones.  If you want full details including the sorts of activities that are allowed in each MPA type, I’d recommend reading the ‘Guidelines for Applying the IUCN Protected Area Management Categories to Marine Protected Areas’.

So to sum up, MPAs differ if how much protection they offer, and some may in reality not offer much more protection than you get in the rest of the ocean anyway.  This might seem a little daft – after all, why bother setting up a MPA if it really isn’t adding any substantial conservation value – to biodiversity of cultural values?  The answer, as it often does, may lie in politics.  There is a wealth of transnational and international agreements set in place through which nation states have agreed to implement MPAs – and with good reason.  MPAs are one of several excellent tools we have through which we can manage our interactions with the ocean, reducing our footprint on it.  The problem comes when nations set MPAs that are meaningless in terms of conservation purely to meet targets.  This includes placing MPAs in areas where even under strict protection, the conservation benefit is minimal.

Rodolphe Devillers of Memorial University of Newfoundland and colleagues in the USA and Australia have recently analysed the motivation behind the placement of MPAs.  The areas of the ocean under the greatest threat are by virtue the areas of the ocean that are most highly utilised – and not just by fishers.  There are a number of human activities that take place in and around the ocean that harm the ocean environment including oil and mineral extraction, and dumping.  Understandably, these are the areas where MPA placement will receive the most resistance.  Conversely, placing MPAs in areas that aren’t really used - and thus not necessarily as threatened as other places - would likely meet less resistance.  Such areas are ‘residual’ to commercial purposes.  The placement of the MPA has little to no impact of stakeholders.  In other words, it’s business as usual.  So which is it?  Are managers going for the path of least resistance, or are they battling to protect the areas which need the most protection?

The researchers assessed this question from a decidedly Australian perspective.  First, the looked at MPAs located across the globe.  They then took a much more regional approach, looking at MPAs within Australian waters.  Finally for a more local look, they assessed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  What they uncovered was (perhaps unsurprisingly) a little damning for managers.  At both a global and regional scale, MPA placement was largely done following the path of least resistance, placed in the areas where human activities were not so prevalent.  This includes all of these very large MPAs that we see being set up across the world.  Whilst large in scale, different parts of the protected areas allow different activities (known as multiple use).  The areas that are the most restrictive tend to be located in the places where we aren’t busy extracting resources.  But all is not lost.  The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – a multiple use zone - was called ‘exemplary’ by the researchers for its planning and zonation.  Although there were some discrepancies between bioregions (large-scale areas defined by features and processes ) covered by the Park, overall protection was placed at a scale for the area it covered.  It might be worth noting here that the research for this paper and it's acceptance by the journal for publication occurred before the recent ‘dumping fiasco’ within the park boundaries.

An argument can be made that protecting areas not currently heavily exploited, and thus not as threatened as areas heavily exploited is a form of pro-active management.  Pro-active management is a good thing - and should be encouraged.  Pro-active management means that we aren’t sitting around waiting for an ecosystem to be so severely damaged (sometimes with no chance of recovery) before trying to do something about it.  It may very well be that some of the ‘residual’ MPAs are placed under the goal of pro-active management, but this is not the case for the majority.  Balancing social, political, economic, and ecological needs and concerns is a difficult business.  Invariably in any decision-making process some aspects will come out as ‘more important’ than others, but to consistently ignore the ecological side is, in the long-term, pure folly.  And it is wrong to claim that we as a species are effectively conserving the very resources on which we depend when we are in fact merely paying lip-service.

This open access paper was published in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.  This is a very well written paper and unlike some science papers, not overly verbose.  It explains the complexities of ocean management well – very much worth a read.

Image:  Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, located off the coast of Georgia.  Credit: NOAA