Editor’s note: Jeff Ardron is scientific advisor on MPAs for the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, and Northeast Atlantic regional coordinator for the Marine Program of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA-Marine). He is also vice-president of the Pacific Marine Analysis and Research Association (PacMARA).

This essay reflects Ardron’s personal views. It does not reflect the views of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, WCPA-Marine, or PacMARA.

By Jeff Ardron

I was invited by MPA News to provide my view on where I think the international MPA community stands at this point: what the biggest challenges are and, in light of the April 2007 summit of the Marine Program of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA-Marine), how I believe WCPA-Marine can assist the field. I have divided my thoughts under two general headings: practicalities and paradigm shifts. Addressing the first is likely achievable, whereas the second will be challenging.

1. Practilities: These are immediate logistical concerns as the global MPA field prepares to meet national and international commitments. Practicalities include:

a. Developing community: There is not yet a cohesive global “MPA community” to speak of. WCPA-Marine is currently not well-known or established in most of its regions. To address this gap, it will need to increase its presence and encourage MPA communities of practice.

b. Developing good practices: This involves honestly sharing with one another what has worked and, more painfully, what has not. Success comes in many variants. What is considered appropriate and successful stakeholder involvement, for example, varies widely from place to place.

c. Tracking progress: WCPA-Marine has endorsed the further development of a global database of MPAs. Tentatively labeled the Wet List, this needs to be widely accessible to a general audience. Building an infrastructure that will allow for near real-time mapping updates will be challenging and will go far beyond simply gathering the data, which has already proven to be not “simple” at all…. Nonetheless, until we can map our progress, we will not know where we stand.

2. Paradigm shifts cause us to redefine “common sense”. Previously, marine conservation was seen as a luxury or, worse, a provocation. It is now becoming accepted that our planet’s ecological systems are at risk of unraveling – and with that, life support for human beings will be jeopardized. This puts MPAs and conservation in a completely different light. I would hope that WCPA-Marine could serve as a hub for new ways of thinking. Below, I propose two possible shifts in perspective:

a. Marine spatial planning: Human society is in the midst of a cultural transition from historic freedoms associated with having large tracts of marine wilderness, to recognizing the constraints of living on a crowded, industrialized planet. The full range of human uses needs to be managed – not just in our parks but everywhere, including the high seas. Instead of banning certain destructive activities here and there in a piecemeal fashion, the time has come to discuss proactively where we will tolerate such activities occurring. This is what spatial planning is really about. To date, WCPA’s emphasis has, in keeping with its name, focused on the designation of protected areas. Considering how few MPAs (highly protected or otherwise) exist, this is entirely understandable. However, this single-minded approach can take us only so far.

b. Incomplete knowledge of ecosystems plagues the daily lives of marine scientists, practitioners, and decision-makers. To address ever-mounting environmental problems, we must move beyond habitually calling for “more research,” laudable though that may be, to learning how to deal with what little research we have. This will require transitioning from managing what we think we know, to acknowledging that in reality we are managing what we do not know (or understand).

How we act, or delay actions, based on our limited knowledge (be it scientific, local, or traditional) is a cultural matter. The precautionary approach is oft-recognized but, in my opinion, only dimly understood. Most folks seem to translate it into “be careful.” But I think it is really the tip of a deeper paradigm shift, questioning how we view our ability to understand the world, and our ability to manage ourselves based on that perceived knowledge. So far, in the marine environment, our success rate has been rather low. Clearly we have been making some bad assumptions.

When faced with uncertainties, other sectors have developed successful mitigation strategies. Consider financial planning: even though most financial advisors will openly admit they do not understand what makes the marketplace tick, they have nonetheless developed approaches such that their clients’ investments will (usually) grow. Medicine has likewise developed sophisticated diagnostics. While it would be unrealistic to expect the level of expertise currently found in medicine (and perhaps also financial planning?), it is not unrealistic to look more closely at their decision-making methodologies.

Finally, we should recognize that we cannot know all contingencies before we make decisions, and that a lot of our knowledge will be acquired as we go along, applying concrete measures and observing their effects. Pure marine research will certainly remain valuable, but it will be applied research that will help deliver us from what are really very prosaic woes. And for that, fully protected control sites will become a necessity, not a luxury.

For more information

Jeff Ardron, Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Isle of Vilm, 18581 Putbus, Germany. E-mail: jeff.ardron@gmail.com