By Jon Day
Director of Ecosystem Conservation and Sustainable Use, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Australia. E-mail:

Marine protected areas, especially large multiple-use areas like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on Australia’s east coast, provide many lessons for marine managers on how to implement ecosystem-based management. However, MPAs are only part of the equation for EBM.

MPAs often provide specific area protection for valuable features or important areas, but the traditional approach to MPAs usually means that the surrounding and connecting seas, as well as upstream land areas, remained subject to resource extraction, harvesting, and management by other resource agencies, or, in some cases, are subject to no management at all. The requirements for the effective protection of marine biodiversity should therefore also include regulation of land-based and maritime sources of pollution, integrated coastal zone management, and the direct regulation of harvesting marine resources.

Integrated coastal zone/ocean management (ICZOM) is increasingly accepted as an effective means of dealing with complex issues across large marine and coastal areas. To be really effective, however, ICZOM must address issues across all government agencies in all relevant jurisdictions (e.g., local, provincial/state and where necessary national government agencies); the land-sea interface; management issues across all uses and with all user groups; and inter-generational equity concerns. Such ICZOM should also utilize information from a wide variety of disciplines, including ecology, sociology and economics, and must consider the socio-political implications of management decisions as well as bio-physical considerations.

MPAs are only as healhy as surrounding waters

MPAs can provide a key contribution to long-term maintenance and viability of marine ecosystems. This is enhanced even more if there is a network of MPAs developed using a representative basis, and if the MPAs are adequate in size and connectivity. However, without a broader integrated and ecosystem-based strategy, any MPA (or network of MPAs) lacks a context. MPAs can only be as “healthy” as the surrounding marine waters because of the fluid nature of the marine environment and biological interdependency of neighboring communities. A broad-scale ecosystem-based approach that includes MPAs is preferable to isolated highly protected enclaves within otherwise unmanaged waters.

MPAs can be an important tool to implement EBM. But the converse is also true: EBM is needed to create effective MPAs. This is because planning and managing MPAs is confounded by a number of factors, including:

  • The interconnectedness of the marine environment (very high levels of connectivity in the marine environment and the biological interdependency mentioned above);
  • The three-dimensional aspects of MPAs cause difficulties for planning and management. Most of our marine environments are not well-known, nor easily viewed, nor easily delineated for planning or management purposes;
  • Ownership issues – most MPAs worldwide remain subject to the “tragedy of the commons”; no one owns them yet they are widely used, frequently leading to over-use.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has long taken an EBM approach to the management of the 344,400-km2 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which differs from the management approach adopted in many other MPAs. How so? Many of the reasons relate to its size and its current management regime. Consider the following:

  • The Great Barrier Reef has had legislation since 1975 that effectively requires an ecosystem approach, and allows for regulatory controls on activities well outside the jurisdictional area if they adversely affect the area. GBRMPA, for example, was able to develop regulations controlling aquaculture up to 5 km landward of the Marine Park in cases where aquaculture discharge was deemed as having, or likely to have, an adverse impact;
  • Since the first zoning plans came into effect in the early 1980s, the entire area has been managed as a multiple-use integrated area, and today the Great Barrier Reef generates about AU $6 billion (US $4.4 billion) annually for the Australian economy from a diverse range of uses – the main ones being shipping and tourism, but also most types of fishing, including trawling, research, traditional use, etc.;
  • Over the last 30+ years, management has evolved and adapted, and despite the jurisdictional complexities, continues to be well-integrated – for example, through complementary legislation for adjoining State and Federal waters – with very good cooperation with most sectors, especially the tourism industry; and
  • The legislative controls apply equally to the airspace above the Marine Park (up to 3000 feet) as well as into the seabed.

While there are many other instances around the world where EBM within the MPA context is occurring, there are few areas where integrated management has implemented an EBM approach, including increasing resilience, at this sort of scale.

Finally, it must be noted that planning and managing MPAs needs to consider dynamic systems that are always subject to change. Because both natural systems and MPAs are never static, changes can and do occur. Frequently the most obvious changes that affect MPAs relate to increasing levels and types of use as well as other changing circumstances, whether they are technological, social, political, or environmental changes.

How easy it is to achieve an “appropriate” level of management given these changing circumstances will depend on a number of factors. These include the type of change(s); the degree of insulation from any external influences, particularly if they are destructive; and the level of social and political acceptability, and the degree of community support for an MPA. It will also depend on its compatibility with existing uses (particularly those undertaken by local people) and its compatibility with existing management regimes and the surrounding management “environment”.