As progress is steadily being made toward the United Nations goal of setting aside 10 percent of the ocean as marine protected areas by 2020, scientists and conservationists are increasingly realizing that success needs to be about more than hitting a number.
“It isn’t just about measuring the coverage. It’s the coverage plus the quality,” said Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, who attended the quadrennial International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Chile last week.
He says that view of marine protected areas (MPAs) was echoed throughout the conference, a theme other attendees picked up on as well.
“We’ve really entered a new era of marine conservation, with large MPAs really dominating the global map,” Rebecca Gruby, an assistant professor at Colorado State University who heads the Human Dimensions of Large Marine Protected Areas project, said after returning from Chile. “There’s been this large and rapid increase in MPAs, but we need to go beyond spatial coverage in reaching these global conservation targets. We need to effectively manage these areas and make sure they’re equitable.”
A number of recent projects are trying to nail down what exactly a “quality” MPA looks like and how to develop one. Getting those best practices right could be the difference between protected areas that conserve species and boost fish stocks and ones that are just circles on a map, so-called “paper parks.”
One large circle was added to the map 2,300 miles (3,700km) off the Chilean coast on Saturday when Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced the creation of the Rapa Nui Rahui Marine Protected Area. The designation blocks industrial fishing, mining and possibly some ship transit in 286,000 square miles (740,000 square km) of ocean surrounding Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui by its inhabitants. (That’s about the size of Chile’s land area). The move follows a vote by 73 percent of the Rapa Nui people on September 3 in support of the marine protected area. The newly protected stretch of ocean is home to 142 marine species not found elsewhere, including 27 that are imperiled, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“After working for five years on Easter Island with the Rapa Nui and the Chilean government, we were thrilled with the outcome,” Matt Rand, director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project, said after flying back from Santiago. He said the Rapa Nui people will still be able to fish using traditional methods in their waters. “It not only protects the ecosystem but the culture and tradition of the Rapa Nui. Their culture is completely connected to the ocean.”
Rand expects the MPA to be effective because it meets several of the best practices identified by scientists.
A 2014 paper published in the journal Nature found that the main problems with ineffective marine protected areas include illegal fishing, lax rules that allow “detrimental harvesting” and being so small that species don’t spend enough time in the reserve.
Researchers determined that the likelihood an MPA would meet conservation goals increased if it: barred take of marine species, enforced such restrictions, if the reserve was remote, and if it was more than 10 years old and more than 40 square miles (100 square km) in size.
Another key criteria often mentioned elsewhere: engagement with the local community and others most affected by the creation of an MPA. Following implementation of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument in the Western Pacific, for instance, the residents of the nearby island of Saipan expressed “widespread disappointment” in the lack of positive results from the MPA, especially in social outcomes, according to interviews conducted by Gruby’s team. “They expected more outcomes sooner,” she said.
But 3,400 miles to the southeast, the residents of Kiribati felt a strong sense of national pride for becoming the first small island developing state to declare a large MPA, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. “According to some, the MPA led to a community benefit in the sense that it has reinvigorated their cultural connection to marine conservation – even though very few will ever visit it,” said Gruby. “It’s very far away.”
Her researchers are currently conducting interviews on Rapa Nui to track social impacts of the new reserve surrounding the remote Chilean territory.
Today’s best practices for how a such a reserve should be implemented emphasize working with local communities and other stakeholders. “Engage with empathy, and listen carefully, to those whose livelihoods, cultural practices and heritage are associated with the site,” reads one key point in a set of guidelines for design and management of large MPAs released last week by a network of agencies and non-profit organizations that work on reserves larger than 150,000 square km.
“Be thoughtful in developing communications and outreach materials for the site, as the messages initially offered to the public will likely be permanent,” reads another.
Another key to success as MPAs have proliferated has been well-written laws protecting reserves, according to Rand.
“People get a little too caught up on what they need to do to manage,” he says. “Managing is probably not the right idea – you’re protecting it. An MPA is very much like a national park, with rangers who protect the resource. You need tight laws, so you have something to enforce. And so people know there are stiff penalties.”
He compares such laws and penalties to a speed limit – a clear line that is easily enforceable and acts as a deterrent.
Morgan’s Marine Conservation Institute wants to honor those MPAs that meet the various criteria for success.
There have only been six nominations so far for the group’s Global Ocean Refuge System, but he hopes that highlighting the most effective MPAs will make it easier for those working on new preserves to find models to follow. After MPAs are nominated, they undergo a review by a panel of scientists and conservationists to determine whether they make significant contributions to protecting biodiversity and follow management and enforcement best practices.
“The total number of MPAs out there is close to the 15,000 level,” Morgan says. “It isn’t for lack of trying, but a lot of them have two problems: They’re either too small to make a difference in conservation or, if they’re big enough, they aren’t doing the right things.”
Those right things include effective management, covering high-priority biodiversity hotspots, engaging with local stakeholders and effectively limiting human activities.
That last criterion can be tricky. “That no-take bar is pretty well established as having an impact in the literature, but it’s less clear how much additional activity can go on,” said Morgan.
He noted that 80 to 90 percent of MPAs allow multiple uses, which makes determining conservation impacts difficult. Morgan cites the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco, where, he says, there’s no less fishing inside the preserve than outside it. “It’s hard to measure the benefits of the sanctuary.”
So far, the Global Ocean Refuge System consists of three MPAs: Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Colombia’s Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary and the Philippines’ Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park – all of which are around 1 million square km or more.
One sign of a successful MPA: more sharks.
“The goal is that the ecosystem is resilient, has not been degraded due to human interactions, overfishing, climate change, whatever,” said Rand. “And how that is shown varies by each place.” But generally, he says, there are high levels of predator abundance and a range of marine life, from sharks to phytoplankton. “Normally, the first thing to decline are the predators, so if they’re abundant that’s a good thing.”
Done right, there could be a lot more such protected pockets of ocean. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, for instance, has set a target of protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.