Marine protected areas (MPAs) can play an important role in promoting EBM in coastal seas, across ocean basins, and within large marine ecosystems. In working examples of EBM from around the world, the regulatory regimes that are able to move management from a single-species focus to a more holistic ecosystem focus are commonly embedded in protected areas. Examples of EBM that occur wholly within an MPA – from Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to Europe's Wadden Sea National Parks – are large-scale and integrative, considering many ecosystems in their management. But using MPAs to advance EBM approaches is much more complex (and has infinitely more potential) than merely designing MPAs or MPA networks that encompass large marine areas. MPAs serve a variety of functions in EBM. We review them here.

Achieving EBM through large-scale multiple-use protected areas

Marine protected areas can be thought of as spatial areas for coordinating a wide array of management measures, in order to address the full suite of threats to marine ecosystems and their ecological processes. At the same time, managers must keep in mind that managing ecosystems means addressing human needs and limitations. Thus, protected areas do not automatically become EBM tools as they scale up in size: the management regime that they impose must tackle a wide variety of issues and have maintaining productivity, diversity, and ecosystem health as the overarching goal of management in order to be full-fledged EBM. Even such integrative MPAs may be unlikely to achieve EBM without coordinated management of areas outside protected area boundaries.

In applying EBM, marine managers often reach for MPAs and MPA networks among the first tools: they are likely to be necessary in the development of effective ecosystem-based management, but unlikely to be sufficient in reaching that overarching goal. Patrick Christie of the University of Washington, who has conducted extensive research on MPAs in the Philippines and Indonesia, describes the use of marine protected areas as "a good starting point for large-scale and integrative management, but not the solution to EBM challenges."

EBM is a staged process that takes time. Using core protected areas to spatially "ground" marine management is a sound strategy that many marine planners and management agencies employ in attempting to operationalize EBM.

MPAs and MPA networks as a foundation for ecosystem protection

With increasing recognition of the threats to the marine and coastal environment, a wide variety of MPAs and related policy frameworks have been developed to conserve and sustainably use coastal and marine resources and ecosystems. Overarching goals for MPAs can be thought of as related to conservation or to sustainable use, though in many MPAs the goal is to practice both within a circumscribed spatial scale. MPAs can help achieve many objectives, including:

  • Biodiversity conservation;
  • Conservation of rare and restricted-range species;
  • Maintenance and/or restoration of natural ecosystem functioning at local and regional scales;
  • Conservation of areas vital for vulnerable life stages;
  • Reducing or minimizing user conflict;
  • Managing fisheries (e.g., using reserves to sustain or enhance yields, restore or rebuild stocks of overexploited species, and provide insurance against management failures);
  • Recreation;
  • Education;
  • Research; and
  • Fulfilling aesthetic needs.

The use of individual marine protected areas has been flourishing; more recently, marine protected area networks are garnering attention. MPA networks are a way to plan MPAs strategically so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Various sorts of MPA networks and systems include representative systems; systems of MPAs designed to protect a single or suite of target species; MPA networks designed to protect sources and sinks of larval recruits for key species (such as corals or commercially important fish); and MPA networks aimed at protecting critical, linked habitats in a wider region – such as those that span coastal wetlands and soft- and hard-bottom communities offshore.

The government of New Zealand is investing in the development of marine protected areas as one of a number of steps aimed at applying EBM in its Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2000, New Zealand set a target of setting aside 10% of its marine environment in MPAs by 2010. To help build this representative MPA network, the New Zealand Government produced a Marine Protected Area Policy and Implementation Plan in 2006, and guidelines for implementing that plan in 2008. Links to the policy and guidelines are at

"The MPA Policy is the New Zealand Government's commitment to a coordinated approach to protecting marine habitats and ecosystems," says Ann McCrone of the NZ Department of Conservation. "New Zealand's coastal marine environment has been divided into 14 broad biogeographic regions. An MPA planning forum will be convened in each of these regions comprising representatives of user groups to develop protection recommendations." Such groups will include tangata whenua (New Zealand's indigenous people); commercial, recreational, and customary fishers; NGOs; scientists; local and regional councils; tourism operators; and mining and petroleum interests.

Mike Donoghue of the NZ Department of Conservation says the protected areas are critical to the conservation of representative marine habitats, highly mobile species, and threatened endemic species with limited home ranges – in particular Hector's and Maui's dolphins. "Protected areas are a versatile tool for promoting conservation with communities, which helps us to find solutions with broad-based local support in a wide range of conservation and management challenges," he says.

However, planners and managers are quick to acknowledge the importance of looking at areas beyond protected area boundaries. David Johnson, Executive Secretary of the intergovernmental OSPAR Commission, which oversees protection of the Northeast Atlantic marine environment, has stated that although countries have committed to EBM, achieving that goal has been difficult. "While core zones that form the basis of MPAs can conserve critical areas, it may be every bit as important to focus attention on the buffer zones around protected areas," said Johnson at a recent meeting on Mediterranean high seas protected areas, held in Tunisia. "These areas must be carefully managed, since their condition will likely have a profound influence on the viability of these islands of protection."

MPAs to protect key species

Protected areas that abate threats to a particular species in a particular place, or that conserve critical habitats for key species, can do more than provide species protection when the species in question is an umbrella species (having broad ecological requirements that are shared by many other species), keystone species (playing a pivotal role in ecosystem dynamics), or even flagship species (charismatic organisms drawing attention to conservation issues). Conservation measures aimed at mitigating threats to such species result in protection for whole communities of organisms, and indeed whole ecosystems. In light of this, investments in conservation of such species can be seen as investments in maintaining overall marine biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Thus protecting key species using MPAs can be a powerful element of EBM.

A rational approach to conserving or restoring marine populations is to use strictly protected areas to safeguard critical habitats such as feeding areas, breeding areas, and resting or staging grounds. But since these areas are often separated by hundreds of kilometers, the areas between critical habitats are also of concern. Identifying and then protecting migration corridors is one technique to ensure the links between the critical habitats remain unbroken. Another is to broaden management to a regional scale, utilizing comprehensive ocean zoning, to help address threats. Regulations within MPAs, within networks, and in the buffer areas in-between, should be tailored to those threats for MPAs to be able to meet their species conservation targets.

Management of MPAs for marine species conservation is complex, requiring sometimes even some knowledge of terrestrial environments, as well as marine ones. Jon Day, Director of Ecosystem Conservation and Sustainable Use for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, provides the following example. In the Great Barrier Reef, some mobile marine species spend important parts of their lifecycle outside the MPA, such as the green turtle (Chelonia mydas). These turtles lay their eggs on the mainland or on islands that are outside the jurisdiction of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Once they hatch (and if they survive), they move into nearshore marine areas in the adjacent State waters. They then migrate through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and across thousands of kilometers of open sea to other countries, where they may be hunted and killed. The females that survive then return to Australia to the same stretch of beach where they were born. This means that effective conservation of this species alone needs to consider local, provincial/state, national and international jurisdictions (both in the open sea and within various countries). Notes Jon Day, "One of the world's largest MPAs is still not large enough to encompass the full lifecycle of the green turtle. And there are many other examples of species that spend large parts of their lifecycle outside the MPA."

Special MPAs: Dynamic MPAs, MPAs on the high seas, and research MPAs

Out beyond the relatively fixed ecosystems of marshes, mangroves, rocky shorelines, seagrasses, and coral reefs, marine ecosystems tend to be highly dynamic, with seasonal and year-to-year changes. MPAs can help us apply EBM that encompasses these elements of offshore ecosystems in at least three ways: 1) through the use of dynamic or transient protected areas; 2) through the use of fixed MPAs on the high seas; and 3) through the use of MPAs that are established specifically to promote research on the ecology of understudied ecosystems and the efficacy of management in those areas.

Researchers and planners are exploring the concept of pelagic protected areas that have movable boundaries or are transient (lasting a short time). David Hyrenbach, an oceanographer at Hawaii Pacific University, admits their use is considerably more difficult than conventional MPAs, but suggests that physical oceanography can provide information on how to prioritize spatial management in pelagic environments. "Large-scale oceanographic conditions such as fronts, upwelling systems, and eddies can be used to predict concentrations of species amenable to spatially-explicit management," says Hyrenbach. "Supplementing such dynamic MPAs with diffuse management in surrounding areas, akin to the use of core areas and buffers in a zoning scheme, would move us closer to true EBM."

Jeffrey Polovina of the (U.S.) National Marine Fisheries Service's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center agrees. He has been working with colleagues to identify the temperature regimes where threatened loggerhead turtles congregate across the Pacific Basin. This information is then used to guide voluntary closures of the Hawaii longline fishery to prevent accidental take of loggerheads. Says Polovina, "Dynamic closed areas improve on fixed closed areas because they match the realities of [pelagic] species distributions better." (For more details on this innovative program to establish dynamic MPAs, go to Similar fishery closures are being designed for other pelagic marine species, such as around bluefin tuna spawning areas in the Indo-Pacific.

Since large marine ecosystems are rarely confined to the waters of coastal nations, extending management to the high seas (beyond national jurisdictions) is a logical element of EBM. High-seas MPAs can help in this regard, but they are much less common than MPAs established in nearshore waters. The world's first trilaterally established MPA covering both national waters and high-seas areas is the Pelagos Sanctuary located in the Ligurian Sea region of the Mediterranean. Much conservation activity is currently focused on identifying key areas to protect on the high seas – in the Mediterranean and beyond – as they are widely thought to have potential in significantly improving the potential for full EBM in these regions.

The paucity of high-seas MPAs suggests difficulties in using this tool in global commons. Irini Papanicolopulu, a senior research fellow in international law at the Universita di Milano-Bicocca in Milan, points out that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea obliges parties to take measures "necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life." Says Papanicolopulu, "It is evident that such measures must also include, where appropriate, the creation of MPAs, both in waters subject to the jurisdiction of the coastal States and in the high seas."

Finally, there is the case of MPAs established as research sites to further EBM aims. EBM is facilitated by the use of adaptive management, which uses the management regime to derive information on ecosystem condition – with the aim of providing data to underpin adaptation of management (moving boundaries of protection, changing regulations within management areas, adding or removing catch limits, etc.) so it remains effective over time and changing conditions (both environmental and societal). MPAs can be central to adaptive management because they can provide the control sites and experimental conditions that make such data-sourcing possible.

MPAs as political motivators for EBM efforts

MPAs are useful not only for in situ conservation, but also in generating support for wider scale marine management. Protected areas can "put a face on a place" – allowing people to better relate to vast and seemingly amorphous tracts of ocean. Protected areas also provide engagement in planning, and can be used to bring people into planning and management processes. They can also lift the discussion on management out of the constrained realm of scientists and management agencies, to broader discussions that involve user groups and affected communities.

Given the challenge of practicing EBM at the scales appropriate to large marine systems, this motivation is essential. MPAs can raise awareness about marine conservation, can be used in education about the marine environment, and can provide the framework to engage and empower stakeholders. An example of how MPAs have been promoted as a livelihood tool for Pacific Island communities is described in a piece by Hugh Govan of IUCN's World Commission on Protected Areas, available here.


  • Marine protected areas are one of many tools in the EBM arsenal; they are used to manage uses within ecologically important areas in marine and coastal ecosystems, protect critical habitats for threatened species, and help to resolve user conflicts and build stewardship.
  • Since a large part of EBM is aimed at recovering depleted populations and degraded habitats, marine protected areas can also provide special protections to impacted species and habitats so that they may naturally recover from anthropogenic pressures.
  • Using MPAs to address ocean issues at ocean basin or large marine ecosystem scales can pave the way to EBM.
  • While MPAs and MPA networks are important tools to achieving this large scale management, they should be thought of as strategic mechanisms rather than ends in themselves.

For more information

Patrick Christie, School of Marine Affairs, University of Washington, U.S. E-mail:

Ann McCrone and Mike Donoghue, Department of Conservation, New Zealand. E-mail: and

David Johnson, OSPAR, London, U.K. E-mail:

Jon Day, GBRMPA, Townsville, Australia. E-mail:

David Hyrenbach, Duke University & Hawaii Pacific University, U.S. E-mail:

Jeffrey Polovina, National Marine Fisheries Service, Honolulu, U.S. E-mail:

Irini Papanicolopulu, University of Milan, Italy. E-mail:

BOX: More coverage of EBM and MPAs

The April 2009 issue of MEAM's sister newsletter MPA News features an article on the relationship between MPAs and EBM, with examples from around the world. Go to

BOX: Are no-take marine reserves the best way to study marine ecosystems in their natural state?

In March 2009, MEAM and the EBM Tools Network co-hosted a Web-based seminar on the relationship between EBM and ecosystem-based fisheries management. (For an audio recording or text transcript, go to Marine protected areas were discussed, particularly the use of no-take marine reserves to study the natural state of oceans. Knowledge of that natural state can help measure the ecosystem effects of fishing and other human activities. Webinar panelist Jake Rice, Senior National Advisor for Ecosystem Sciences with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was skeptical that no-take marine reserves were the most useful way to study natural systems. In his words:

"Are no-take marine reserves the best place to find out about what a natural system really is like? I would say no. No-take marine reserves are a good way to learn what happens to areas that are not fished. But it does not matter what scale the no-take marine reserve is: there will be system dynamics that go well beyond it that are still influencing what goes on inside it – whether it is the absence of great whales that were fished out 200 years ago, or major oceanographic processes that transport important nutrients or recruits from other areas into it. The systems in which management needs to be most interested are not the areas that are [closed to all fishing], but areas where fishing is sustainable with all the information we have available."

Do you agree with Jake Rice that marine reserves are not a fully effective way to study natural systems? If so, what can be done to address their shortcomings? Or do you disagree with him? Let us know. E-mail your comments to, and we will publish responses in a future issue.

BOX: EBM Tip – On MPAs and integrated resource management

The following advice on integrating uses and sectors in the context of MPAs was excerpted by MEAM from Guidelines for Marine Protected Areas (IUCN, 1999), available at

"The value of an MPA can be completely jeopardized if pollution from land-based sources cannot be controlled. Yet few MPA managers in the world can claim they have a decisive influence on activities on land. Nevertheless, influencing the management of the nearby land should be a long-term objective of management, and should be considered when the legal status and powers of the MPA are decided. The more influence the MPA manager has on the control of land-based pollution sources, in particular, the more effective the MPA will be.

"It is a mistake to try to integrate all the relevant uses and sectors at once. One reason why integrated management is so difficult is that managers have tried to deal with all activities at the same time. The key to success is to be selective and deal with the most important issues first. The others can be addressed as the program matures, its credibility grows, and the public accepts the need for integration."