A new study by a global team of researchers has determined that MPA effectiveness — as measured by higher fish biomass compared to non-MPA sites — is generally greatest in MPAs that have adequate staff and budget to carry out their management duties.

For MPA managers reading this, that might not seem much of a surprise. After all, without adequate staff and funds, it becomes more difficult for MPA managers to do their work. Indeed, one might expect understaffed and underfunded sites to have poorer ecological results.

But the finding varies from that of a landmark study on MPA effectiveness in 2014. That study, led by Graham Edgar of the University of Tasmania, found that effectiveness correlated best with a set of five criteria: the most effective sites were no-take, well-enforced, more than 10 years old, large in area (>100 km2), and isolated from fished areas. These became known as the NEOLI criteria (for No-take, Enforced, Old, Large, and Isolated).

The new study does account for the NEOLI criteria but finds, for its sample of MPAs, that the criteria do not correlate as strongly with effectiveness as having adequate staff and funding. (As covered below, the two studies were structured differently and had different data sets, explaining some of the apparent divergence in findings.) The finding suggests that even MPAs that do not meet the NEOLI criteria — such as small, inshore, and multiple-use sites — may still achieve ecological success if staffed and funded sufficiently.

Increases in biomass were three times greater

David Gill, a post-doctoral fellow supported by the National Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and the Luc Hoffmann Institute, led the new study, which appears in the journal Nature. “We set out to understand how well marine protected areas are performing and why some perform better than others,” he says. “What we found was that while most MPAs increased fish populations, including MPAs that allow some fishing activity, these increases were far greater in MPAs with adequate staff and budget.”

Gill’s team analyzed a set of 433 MPAs with management data, 218 MPAs with ecological data, and 62 MPAs with both. The management data were gathered from three families of MPA management self-assessment tools: the Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool (METT), the World Bank MPA Score Card, and the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program’s MPA Management Assessment Checklist. (Under METT, for example, respondents rate the adequacy of staff capacity on a three-tier scale — from “There are no staff” to “Staff numbers are inadequate” to “Staff numbers are adequate.” For more details on defining adequate in the study, see the study’s supplementary information.) The fish biomass data were gathered from various marine researchers and a recent meta-analysis of scientific literature, and compared biomass inside each MPA to non-MPA sites (outside the MPA and/or before MPA establishment).

Fish biomass increased in 71% of the sites with ecological data. In the 62 MPAs with both ecological and management data, the level of biomass increase correlated strongly with the sites’ management. Where there was adequate staffing, increases in biomass were nearly three times greater than those without adequate staffing.

Unfortunately, only 35% of MPAs reported having enough funding for management activities. Just 9% reported adequate staff to manage the MPA.

The findings suggest that effective MPAs are not just dependent on environmental conditions or MPA features but are also heavily dependent on available capacity. “These results highlight the potential for an infusion of resources and staff at MPAs to enhance MPA management and ensure that MPAs realize their full potential,” said Helen Fox of the National Geographic Society, who was a co-author on the study. “The good news is that this is a solvable problem. MPAs perform better when they have enough staff and an adequate budget.”

Comparison to the NEOLI results

Although the new Gill study and 2014 Edgar study both examined MPA effectiveness, they were structured quite differently. The Edgar study, with a sample size of 87 MPAs, focused on five aspects: (1) degree of fishing permitted within MPAs; (2) level of enforcement; (3) MPA age; (4) MPA size; and (5) presence of continuous habitat allowing unconstrained movement of fish across MPA boundaries.

Gill’s study, in contrast, looked more closely at management, subdividing it into 10 indicators of effectiveness and equity. These included whether each site had adequate staff capacity, adequate budget capacity, acceptable enforcement capacity, appropriate regulations in place, and clearly defined boundaries, among other measures. “For our sample of MPAs, there were other factors that were more important [than the NEOLI criteria] when we disentangled ‘management’ into various components,” says Gill.

The study represents a fresh look into what makes some MPAs more effective than others. “Gill et al. provide a new perspective by focusing squarely on the role of people in MPA effectiveness,” writes Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in a commentary that accompanies the study in Nature. “[The study] provides a timely warning that rapid expansion of protected areas by itself will not provide desired outcomes if there are large shortfalls in our capacity to manage, monitor, and finance those areas.”

The study “Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally” by Gill et al. is available at http://rdcu.be/qi2N.

For more information:

David Gill, Conservation International, Virginia, US. Email: dgill@conservation.org

Box: Webinar, 20 April: Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of MPAs globally

Time: 1pm US EDT / 10am US PDT / 5pm UTC

In this webinar, David Gill of Conservation International will present his Nature study findings that are described in the adjoining article. The webinar is co-sponsored by MPA News, the NOAA National MPA Center, and the EBM Tools Network. To register, visit https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7723865057762142467

Box: Takeaways from the Gill et al. study

  • Most MPAs are delivering increases in fish biomass.
  • The magnitude of that delivery is highly dependent on staff and budget.
  • There are few MPAs with adequate staff and budget.
  • There is an opportunity to boost MPA performance with investments in staff and budget capacity. Conversely, there is risk of diluting MPA performance if the MPA field continues to expand without necessary investments in capacity.