It is increasingly recognized that “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches are critical to governing MPAs. That is, MPAs should combine the benefits of state control and binding legislation (top-down) with the benefits of community-based approaches that empower local people and involve them in decision-making (bottom-up). By pairing the approaches, an MPA gets regulations that are acceptable to an engaged and supportive community.

There is a third approach as well. To further strengthen community support for an MPA, managers are encouraged to harness the power of market forces. This could include fostering profitable alternative livelihoods that are compatible with an MPA’s goals, or attaching property rights to environmental resources.

All of this makes sense. But how these three main approaches (top-down, bottom-up, and market-based) should be combined in practice, and in different contexts, remains a challenge.

A new UNEP study aims to help clarify these matters. Led by researchers at University College London (UK) and Dalhousie University (Canada), the study draws lessons from nearly two-dozen MPA case studies from around the world. Within the framework of the three main governance approaches described above, the study describes 40 separate strategies – or “incentives” – that can be used to steer community compliance with MPA regulations (see box at the end of this article). It also shows how each of the MPAs under study is applying its own unique mix of these strategies to fit its specific context.

The UNEP study’s main message is that the more diverse an MPA is in its application of governance strategies, the more sustainable it will be. In other words, it can better withstand the unbalancing effects of various drivers (e.g., global fish markets, incoming users, etc.) that could undermine the MPA’s effectiveness. “It is clear from these case studies that MPA governance should be considered in terms of how incentives can be combined, rather than whether any particular category of incentives is ‘best’,” states the study report.

Below, MPA News talks with the study’s three authors – Peter Jones, Wanfei Qiu, and Elizabeth De Santo – about their findings and how an MPA can know when it is applying the right mix of approaches.

MPA News: How does an MPA know when it has the balance right in terms of the strategies it is applying? Or is the key simply to continue adding more and more strategies?

Elizabeth De Santo: We don’t think that increasing governance complexity is something that needs to be done in perpetuity. When is the balance right? When you’re achieving conservation objectives and can say, yes, this MPA is doing its job effectively. However, one also has to be open to the flexibility necessary for adaptive management approaches, and thus the complex balance necessary for achieving successful governance needs to be adaptable as well. So it is not necessarily about layering on more governance measures, but rather being open to changing the relative proportions of what is in place in order to meet new challenges.

Peter Jones: Increasingly, I tend to think more in terms of “seeking a good blend” of incentives, as socio-ecological governance systems are arguably too complicated and dynamic to be considered in terms of “getting the balance right.” It is similar to how the thinking moved from talking in terms of the “balance of nature” towards a more dynamic representation of complex ecosystems, with the emphasis on promoting resilience. If you think you have “got the balance right,” it probably means that you will soon be stumbling. The emphasis should always be on being ready for the unbalancing effect of driving forces. Borrowing further from thinking about ecosystem resilience, the report concludes that “resilience in MPA governance frameworks is woven by complex webs connecting incentives from all categories.” So the key to effective and equitable MPA governance is seeking to combine different incentives rather than just getting the balance right or maximizing the diversity of incentives.

Wanfei Qiu: In seeking to get the balance right in governing MPAs, it is important to recognize the linkages and inter-dependence between different incentives. For example, market incentives such as territorial user rights in fisheries (TURFs) can be very effective in promoting sustainable resource use. But they often require a legal basis to ensure that the rights of TURF owners are protected and their obligations are fulfilled. I tend to think of the balance in an MPA governance system as a dynamic one, with interconnected incentives designed to maximize the resilience of the system against forces of change.

Can you provide an example of an MPA that has actively broadened its base of incentives?

Jones: The Wash and North Norfolk Coast European Marine Site in the UK could easily have attempted to rely largely on its strong legal framework under European legislation. But the lead fisheries management authority chose to pursue a more participative approach that provided for local users to influence decisions and bring their knowledge into the processes. While legal incentives are still important and there have been conflicts, this case represents an excellent example of how different incentives can be combined.

De Santo: The US National Marine Sanctuary Program, as a system of 14 MPAs designated over nearly 30 years, is a good example of an adaptive governance approach. Each MPA’s management plan is tailored to the context in which it is set, incorporating lessons learned from designation and management in other areas, and including adaptive management. We hope that our study and its next phases can provide this kind of shared experience and knowledge for other MPAs in the world, especially those that do not have the learning benefits from being in a system of MPAs.

In analyzing the 20 MPAs in your study, you asked which incentives were needed to improve governance in each case. Legal incentives (in other words, laws and penalties to steer human activity) were cited more often than the other categories of incentives combined. Does this mean that the other types of incentives are not as important as laws for helping MPAs reach their goals?

De Santo: We would not say that other incentives are less important. However, having a strong legal base for designation, monitoring, and enforcement of MPAs is clearly a necessary prerequisite for effective conservation.

Jones: While legal incentives are important, they cannot alone achieve the effective and equitable governance of MPAs. It is a bit like the legs of a chair – they are all important.

[Editor’s note: The UNEP report Governing Marine Protected Areas: Getting the Balance Right is available at]

For more information:

Peter Jones, Department of Geography, University College London, UK. E-mail:

Wanfei Qiu, Department of Geography, University College London, UK. E-mail:

Elizabeth De Santo, Marine Affairs Program, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. E-mail:

BOX: Governance incentives

There are many types of strategies that managers can apply to steer stakeholders toward complying with an MPA’s regulations. The UNEP study calls these steering strategies “incentives”, and identifies 40 of them. It organizes these incentives into categories that mirror the three main approaches to governance – legal incentives (consistent with top-down governance), participative incentives (bottom-up governance), and economic incentives (market-based approaches). It also adds two more categories that can be combined with these three approaches: interpretative incentives and knowledge incentives. Here are examples of each:

  • Legal incentives – Example: Clarity and consistency in defining the legal objectives of MPAs, general and zonal use restrictions, and the roles and responsibilities of different authorities and organizations. [Note: Legal incentives, as this study uses the term, are often mandates by another name.]
  • Participative incentives – Example: Bringing in neutral facilitators to support governance processes and negotiations, or training state employees to do so.
  • Economic incentives – Example: Promoting the “green marketing” of tourism, fisheries, etc. products from the MPA to increase profits through price premiums.
  • Interpretative incentives – Example: Promoting recognition of and respect for the MPA’s regulations/restrictions, including the boundaries.
  • Knowledge incentives – Example: Developing mechanisms for independent advice and/or arbitration in the face of conflicting information and/or uncertainty.