A study of 87 marine protected areas worldwide has found that conservation success – as indicated by fish biomass – improves exponentially when an MPA has five key features. Those recurring characteristics are:

  • No fishing allowed;
  • Well-enforced;
  • More than 10 years old;
  • Relatively large in area (larger than 100 km2); and
  • Isolated from fished areas by habitat boundaries, such as deep water or sand.

Published in Nature magazine in February 2014, the study concludes that global conservation targets based on area alone will not guarantee protection of marine biodiversity. “More emphasis is needed on better MPA design, durable management, and compliance to ensure that MPAs achieve their desired conservation value,” writes the 25-author research team.

The study will be the focus of a live interactive chat on 3 March on OpenChannels.org, featuring lead author Graham Edgar of the University of Tasmania.

MPAs without the features are often indistinguishable from fished sites

The study’s results are not wholly dissimilar from previous analyses of MPA success, which found similar contributing factors (“On the Current State of MPA Science“, MPA News 13:4). However, the new study may be the first to have considered the factors simultaneously, using data collected globally with standardized methods.

Also noteworthy is its finding that aside from the few MPAs that display four or all five of the so-called “NEOLI” features – No-take, Enforced, Old, Large, and Isolated – most of the remaining sites display little difference in recovery of fish biomass compared to nearby fished sites. (Note: Isolation in the case of the NEOLI criteria does not necessarily mean remoteness: an isolated site, for example, could be a small reef surrounded by sand in an urban estuary. However, a small reef like that would not meet the NEOLI criterion for largeness, meaning that the site could meet only four of the five NEOLI criteria. In the study, MPAs with four NEOLI features were more successful than sites with fewer, but not as successful as those with all five features.)

In the study, just 4 of the 87 MPAs had all five NEOLI features: these MPAs were Cocos Island, Costa Rica; Malpelo MPA, Colombia; Kermadec Islands, New Zealand; and Middleton Reef, Australia. Compared to non-NEOLI sites, these MPAs had on average twice as many species of large fish per transect, eight times more large fish, and 20 times more sharks than fished areas.

“Management agencies around the world clearly need to focus on creating more of these effective protected areas,” said Edgar in an editorial published the same day as the study (http://theconversation.com/worlds-largest-survey-of-marine-parks-shows-conservation-can-be-greatly-improved-22827). “At the same time they need to alter the design and management of the many existing protected areas that aren’t working. The few conservation gems are presently hidden amongst protected areas that are ineffective because of inadequate regulations or poor enforcement.”

Response from the MPA community

Matt Rand is director of the Global Ocean Legacy project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is working to create 15 marine parks of 200,000 km2 or larger by 2022. He notes the project has used the NEOLI criteria to help secure the establishment of MPAs in Hawaii, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Chagos Archipelago, and the Coral Sea. “All these sites are no-take, very large, and isolated, and we are working hard to make sure they are well-enforced,” he says. “They are not yet old, but that is only a matter of time.”

Peter Jones of University College London, author of a new book on MPA governance (see Notes & News this issue), calls the study “a very important paper that makes an outstanding contribution to debates about the need for effective MPAs.” However, in a blog post on OpenChannels.org (http://openchannels.org/node/5557), he expresses concern that governments and NGOs might interpret the study as suggesting there is relatively little role for small MPAs near human communities. “Is it too easy to conclude that we should focus on large, no-take, isolated (particularly on remote islands), strictly enforced MPAs that are not compromised by stakeholder consultation processes?” he asks.

Tundi Agardy of Sound Seas (and contributing editor to MPA News’ sister publication MEAM) agrees it is an important study that should make the MPA field take pause. But she suggests there should be more indicators of MPA success considered than just the recovery of populations of high trophic-level fish.

“Fishing restrictions, including no-take zones, are absolutely necessary,” she says. “But fishing shouldn’t be the only threat addressed by MPAs. MPAs can be designated to protect valued seascapes, protect highly productive habitats or benthic communities of organisms, reduce conflicts between user groups, elicit better behavior in visitors (controlling trash, diver damage, etc.), create living laboratories for studying anthropogenic impacts, or serve as a focal point for pushing regulations that reduce pollution and maintain water quality. To imply that an MPA that has achieved these goals but has not eradicated fishing is a failed MPA promotes only a limited view of what MPAs can achieve for conservation.”

The global MPA study is at www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13022.html.

For more information:

Graham Edgar, University of Tasmania, Australia. Email: G.Edgar@utas.edu.au

Matt Rand, The Pew Charitable Trusts, US. Email: mrand@pewtrusts.org

Peter Jones, University College London, UK. Email: p.j.jones@ucl.ac.uk

Tundi Agardy, Sound Seas, US. Email: tundiagardy@earthlink.net

BOX: Graham Edgar will answer your questions on the global MPA study

OpenChannels.org will host Graham Edgar and some of his co-authors (to be announced) as they take your questions on their just-published Nature article “Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features”.

The event will be held Monday, 3 March, at 2 pm PST / 5 pm EST / 10 pm GMT. (For those of you in eastern Australia, that is Tuesday, 4 March, at 9 am.)

For full details or to join the live chat event, go to http://openchannels.org/node/5628