Marine protected areas are designated typically in a piecemeal fashion, one site at a time. A special habitat is identified and protected in an MPA…then another special habitat is identified and protected…then another. Over time, and with enough diligence, a country or region can build a representative system of MPAs this way.

This gradual method, however, may not be the most efficient way of building a representative network of MPAs. It can take a long time to carry out. And the ad hoc planning style can lead to gaps in coverage as planners focus on protecting one site rather than several sites that are ecologically linked.

As the MPA field strives to meet global targets for designating representative networks of MPAs (MPA News 12:3), several jurisdictions are applying more structured strategies for building their MPA systems. Rather than one site at a time, they are designing networks of MPAs all at once, across broad regions. (The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was one of the first jurisdictions to do this: in 2004 its Representative Areas Program developed a comprehensive network of no-take areas within the park – MPA News 5:10.) Using decision-support tools like MARXAN, this all-at-once approach addresses some of the inefficiencies of the incremental approach. But it is not without its own set of challenges. Here, MPA News examines the benefits and obstacles of each strategy, as applied in two countries.

A. The UK’s comprehensive approach: “Giving ourselves the best chance of achieving ecological coherence within the network”

Note: Jen Ashworth is senior MPA specialist with Natural England. Natural England is responsible for advising the British Government on marine conservation and seascape issues in England’s territorial waters, including implementing a network of Marine Conservation Zones through the country’s Marine and Coastal Access Act ( These new zones, combined with existing designated areas and new MPAs in Scotland and Wales, are intended to provide an ecologically coherent network of MPAs for the UK.

MPA News: The UK is taking a comprehensive, all-at-once approach to designing a national MPA network. What are the benefits to such an approach, compared to a more incremental strategy?

Jen Ashworth: Natural England has previously taken an incremental approach to selecting MPAs. For example our European MPAs (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas – have been designated in several stages. However, under the Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009, new national MPAs known as Marine Conservation Zones must be identified to contribute to the network, which the Government wants to complete by 2012.

To this end, Natural England – alongside the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), which has responsibility for UK offshore waters – set up the Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) Project in England and offshore waters adjacent to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The MCZ Project is being delivered through four regional projects. Each regional project is working with sea users and interest groups to identify new MPAs and provide recommendations to Government for sites within its region by late 2011.

The benefit of this more comprehensive approach is that we are giving ourselves the best chance of achieving ecological coherence within the network. The MCZ Project has a series of network design principles and criteria that the regional groups are following to identify possible sites. These principles can be applied in different ways. For example, you could meet them with lots of smaller sites or fewer larger ones. This leads to a socio-economic benefit: stakeholders can be as spatially efficient as they like and minimize the impact on their activities where there are options about site locations. This efficiency may not always happen in an incremental approach.

MPA News: What are the challenges associated with taking the all-at-once approach?

Ashworth: There are several challenges to this approach. First, a key aim of the project is to use the best available evidence. Gathering evidence over such a large sea area is tricky, especially when evidence includes individuals’ knowledge of the sea areas they use. To help with this, the project has been using an online data collection tool:

Another challenge is that the project is asking stakeholders to do a lot in a relatively short period of time. We want to engage as many people as possible in terms of asking fishers where they fish, divers where they dive, etc. For some stakeholders, they need to be involved in each of the regional groups, which means going to lots of meetings.

As statutory agencies we have also had to make a cultural change in the way we interact with sea users. Within stakeholder groups, we are only one voice and other interests have an equal role in deciding where sites will be.

MPA News: Has your planning process been influenced by MPA planning processes elsewhere?

Ashworth: Natural England and JNCC were heavily influenced by the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process in California and saw that as a good model for our MCZ Project in terms of engaging stakeholders in MPA planning. Similar to the MLPA process (, we have stakeholder groups identifying MPAs, and we also have the equivalent of the MLPA Science Advisory Team.

Our seas, though, are even busier than California’s. In addition to commercial fishing, recreational sea angling, and other recreational use, the UK has a big program to build offshore wind farms. There is also shipping to and from many large ports, marine aggregate extraction, cables and pipelines, and oil and gas. This means the stakeholder groups have to make sure they accommodate a wide range of interests in the MPA planning.

For more information:

Jen Ashworth, Natural England, Peterborough, UK. E-mail:

B. Canada’s incremental approach: Allowing new data and information to be incorporated in planning

Note: Maxine Westhead is section head for protected areas and conservation planning in the Maritimes Region for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Since 1997, DFO has been adding sites (under the country’s Oceans Act) to a representative system of Canadian MPAs. The planning process has typically involved engaging with local stakeholders to identify and assess individual MPA candidates – “areas of interest” under the Oceans Act – then guiding each site through a multi-year public consultation process in preparation for final designation.

DFO is now leading development of a more comprehensive MPA planning process based on the concept of bioregional networks (see box at the end of this article). Under consideration is the contribution of a range of federal, provincial, and territorial site designations as well as other marine management tools (not just MPAs). The approach could lead to the planning of several ecologically linked MPA sites at once.

MPA News: So far, Canada has taken an incremental, one-site-at-a-time approach to building a national MPA network. What have been the benefits from such an approach?

Maxine Westhead: The Department of Fisheries and Oceans launched a number of MPA pilot projects shortly after Canada’s Oceans Act was passed. Our experience since then in the DFO Maritimes Region demonstrates several benefits to the one-site-at-a-time approach. A major social upside to the pilot phase (1998-2006) was that it allowed us to introduce MPAs to industry, stakeholders, and other government agencies at a time when there was still great uncertainty, fear, and resistance to the concept. In retrospect, the first decade of the regional MPA program witnessed a growth in stakeholder knowledge of MPAs as a result of early candidate sites. We now encounter more acceptance of MPA legitimacy.

A critical ecological benefit to such an approach is the ability to incorporate new data and information into our planning process. As the Maritimes Region advances the MPA program and refines the goals and objectives for the forthcoming bioregional MPA network, there will be flexibility to respond to new research findings. For example, our knowledge of sensitive benthic environments and cold-water coral grows incrementally every time a researcher lowers a camera to the seabed. The findings and associated conservation needs will inevitably shape the selection of future MPA candidates. Developments in other conservation frontiers, such as designations under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, will also influence the site selection process. In addition, a one-site-at-a-time approach allows the MPA program to address evolving pressures arising from changing patterns of ocean use.

One of the biggest overall benefits for our region has been the opportunity for learning, reflection, and program adaptation as experience is gained with each MPA. This is especially true for developments in regulatory best practice. In Canada, Oceans Act MPAs are long-term statutory declarations. Each time a site is designated, practitioners learn a bit more about the nuance of legal intent as well as the importance of language and terminology. We improve the regulatory wording and ultimately the ease of management and enforcement.

MPA News: What are the challenges of the one-site-at-a-time approach?

Westhead: Ecologically speaking, one obvious drawback to the approach we have taken is the potential risk to seabed features, special areas, and significant habitats posed by unrestrained human activity. Regional practitioners believe we could prevent unforeseen damage, lessen adverse disturbances, and alleviate biodiversity losses by protecting a lot more ocean all at once in a comprehensive network of MPAs. Unfortunately, despite good intentions on our part for over a decade, and broad support to develop an overarching network plan, our capacity and resources have limited us to assessing and establishing MPAs one at a time.

A persistent social challenge raised by the incremental approach is resentment from user groups most likely to be impacted by an MPA. The NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Back Yard) is to be expected anywhere, but the one-site-at-a-time approach seems to create a particular feeling of inequity within the region. For example, we are often asked, “Why select and prioritize THIS site in OUR area? Couldn’t you find a different site somewhere else in the region for your next MPA?” An all-at-once approach would demonstrate that every part of the region was being given equal treatment and attention by MPA planners.

Another message raised consistently by stakeholders is the desire to move away from one-off designations toward a more systematic approach. This challenging demand has always been there, and not just from conservationists as might be expected. Marine industries and other regulators have long sought a regional MPA network plan in hopes that it would lend some certainty and predictability to their own plans, investments, and endeavors. Not knowing where and when the next MPA will be sited introduces some economic and liability risk factors for industry proponents.

One major drawback of the incremental approach for practitioners is the need to re-acquaint ourselves with the industries and key representatives whenever we embark on a new site. Despite the growing public awareness of MPAs, we often have to re-introduce the concepts and explain what MPAs are and what they are not. This means a lot of visits to communities – which is ultimately a great benefit for the program, but a large upfront investment.

MPA News: What will Canada’s upcoming bioregional MPA planning process look like?

Westhead: DFO will soon launch an all-at-once planning process that will be followed by a cycle of site selections. I am pleased to say that we are finally moving in that direction.

It is important to note that any network planned at a given point in time will reflect the current understanding of the marine environment along with knowledge of the existing uses, policy envelopes, and so forth. Just as the sea and marine activities are dynamic, so are the fiscal, bureaucratic, and legal frameworks we work under. All are subject to change.

For more information:

Maxine Westhead, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. E-mail:

BOX: Open for comment: draft framework for Canada’s MPA network

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has posted a draft National Framework for Canada’s Network of Marine Protected Areas online for public review. The draft framework provides direction for the design of a national network of MPAs, including the proposed overarching vision and goals; design properties; eligibility criteria for inclusion in the network; network governance structure; and guidance for promoting national consistency in bioregional network planning. The document was drafted in collaboration with a federal-provincial-territorial government Oceans Task Group that reports to the Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers.

The draft is open for public comment until 3 February 2011 and is available at

BOX: Planning MPA networks for connectivity

Marine species often require different habitats at different life stages. Thus a major consideration in the planning of MPA networks is ecological connectivity: how well does the network protect the various linked habitats that a species will need over its lifetime?

Peter Sale, lead author of Preserving Reef Connectivity: A Handbook for Marine Protected Area Managers(available at and, says that building connectivity successfully into MPA network planning should not depend on whether the planning process takes a one-site-at-a-time approach or all-at-once approach:

“Fundamentally, it does not matter if a network is built up one node at a time or all nodes at one time. For connectivity to be adequately achieved within a network of MPAs, it is necessary to space them appropriately for the dispersal capabilities of target species, and this requires due consideration of hydrodynamic patterns and bathymetric patterns in the location where the network is being established.

“Thus to design a network, one must begin with reasonable knowledge of hydrodynamics and bathymetry for the location, and a clear understanding of the species or types of species that are to be of primary concern. Then possible locations must be chosen using a variety of criteria both ecological and socioeconomic, but including information on the dispersal capabilities, and the habitat requirements at different life stages of those species selected as the primary targets. While detailed information on dispersal capabilities (particularly of larval stages) is still quite limited, a number of research teams are building this knowledge for reef species at various sites around the world. We are already able to make approximations that are reasonable for a number of types of fish species.

“In most situations, funding will only be sufficient to implement MPAs sequentially, and ‘all at once’ will not be an option. In wealthier nations, large regions can be evaluated physically and biologically, a region-wide zoning plan designed, and the MPA protection put in place all at once. In such cases this is a logical and appropriate approach. But in poorer nations, the same long-term goal can be achieved using a gradual approach.”

For more information: Peter Sale, Institute for Water, Environment and Health, United Nations University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. E-mail: