In a report published by the United Nations University this past July, a team of researchers concluded that most coastal management strategies in use worldwide were largely ineffective at stopping environmental degradation, and called for changes. The report Stemming Decline of the Coastal Ocean: Rethinking Environmental Management criticized most coastal and marine resource management efforts as fragmented and insufficiently based on science. MPAs received particular criticism. “Marine protected areas are becoming the principal tool used for conservation management in the coastal ocean but they are poorly used,” concluded the authors. They said that although no-take marine reserves have been touted as a fishery management tool, too little research has been done to establish their usefulness for that purpose. The report is available at

Bob Steneck of the University of Maine in the U.S. was on the report’s eight-person team, and co-wrote the MPA section with Peter Sale. Below, Steneck talks with MPA News about the report’s MPA conclusions:

MPA News: Your report calls for significant investment in targeted research on the use of no-take reserves as fishery management tools. How optimistic are you that such investment will occur?

Steneck: I think there have been significant investments in research on no-take reserves, though not necessarily on their use in fisheries management. Some of that was targeted research and some of it was opportunistic. My sense is that most demonstrable effects have been confined to reserves and areas immediately adjacent to them (i.e., adult spillover effects). Without larger landscape effects where significant population increases of fished species are clearly evident over the distributional range of those species, it will be hard to convince funding agencies this is where they should invest their money for fisheries management. So, without such proof of concept, it is hard for me to be optimistic we will see a significant investment of new money in this area.

MPA News: The report’s assertion that “the great majority [of MPAs] are ‘paper parks'” – with little to no enforcement – is a strong statement.

Steneck: Many studies have concluded that most MPAs are paper parks. The problem is not the biology or ecology. We know that many target species become more abundant and bigger in protected areas. Rather, the problem is lack of effective incentives. Stakeholders see little long-term gain for them not to fish. Also, places that have fallen into a “poverty trap” (in which there are no other economic opportunities) cannot succeed because not fishing is not an option for them. Without getting community-based support, MPAs will fail. If anyone can show a region-wide improvement in fish that are locally valued, a conservation ethic could grow. Personally, I doubt such MPA-induced region-wide improvements are possible.

MPA News: Can no-take reserves still play an important role in ecosystem-based management through their role in biodiversity conservation, even if their usefulness in fishery management is not well-established?

Steneck: Yes. Evidence is strong for this. But again, the political will to scale up in the face of people who depend on the marine ecosystem for food and economic survival is lacking. A stronger approach is to develop a toolkit that includes MPAs along with quotas (catch shares), spatially-bound exclusive fishing rights, etc. Such toolkits can work only before a region has fallen into a poverty trap. So in the U.S. and other developed countries, toolkits like this should be developed. In all cases, however, local stakeholders should be involved every step of the way. They should be asked if there is a problem related to fisheries (most will say there is) and then they should be asked what solutions make sense to them. There are many examples of local solutions working wonderfully based on local cultures and traditions. For example, Palau values ecologically important parrotfish for food and tradition, so they developed a brilliant solution to ban the export of reef fish. The country’s population is small relative to the size of the coral reef ecosystems, so their tradition of catching and eating parrotfish can go on without threatening the health of the reef. This works: their reefs are highly resilient and the local Palauans have a fisheries management tool they believe in and support.

For more information:

Bob Steneck, University of Maine, Walpole, ME, U.S. E-mail: