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Experts say marine protected areas are great but could be better with more staff and funding

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

When people used the oceans up until the late 1800s, they often did so with reckless abandon. Fishers would pull enormous quantities of fish from the seas and whalers would nab as many blubber-filled cetaceans as possible. Coral-hunters would pull the hard-bodied animals from reefs to sell or use as jewelry and decorations. Shippers would sail their great ships across all types of marine habitats.

It was only at the turn of the 20th century that people began paying more attention to the need to protect the oceans and the life they contained. Scientists and ocean advocates, like Jacques Cousteau and Rachel Carson, played a large role in turning attention to the plight of the seas. With that attention came action, in the form of marine protected areas—also called “MPAs”—where people are prohibited from taking or disturbing a given marine area and the life it contains.

Photo by Markus Braun. Asinara, Italy is listed by WDPA as both a marine reserve and a national marine park. (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo by Markus Braun. Asinara, Italy is listed by WDPA as both a marine reserve and a national marine park. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since 1900, about 5,000 MPAs have been established worldwide, covering a total area of about 2.85 million square kilometers. While 5,000 MPAs may sound like a large number, they represent just 0.8 percent of the world’s 361 square kilometers of ocean. What’s more, a new study suggests MPAs suffer from a lack of staff and funding—and this is “preventing MPAs from reaching their full potential.”

“Our study showed that most MPAs are conserving marine fish populations, however the magnitude of these conservation impacts is strongly linked to available staff and financial capacity,” says David Gill, lead author of the study which was published in Nature last week.

Gill, a post-doctoral fellow supported by the National Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and the Luc Hoffmann Institute, and a group of marine researchers analyzed data from three widely applied MPA management assessment tools and independent ecological datasets covering 589 MPAs around the world. Of these, they compared MPA stakeholder and manager responses to questions about staffing, rule enforcement, decision-making and funding with independent reported MPA data on fish biomass while controlling for other factors such as sea surface temperature and chlorophyll levels for 62 MPAs in 24 countries where all this data was available.

Photo by Sakurai Midori. Bunaken National Marine Park, Manado, Indonesia. (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo by Sakurai Midori. Bunaken National Marine Park, Manado, Indonesia. (Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers found that fish populations increased in 71 percent of MPAs studied—and that such increases were strongly linked to site management. MPAs with self-reported sufficient staffing had increases in fish populations were almost three times greater than those that reported a lack of staff. Just 9 percent of MPAs reported having enough staff necessary for proper management, and only 35 percent reported receiving sufficient funding needed for management activities, including law enforcement and maintenance.

Prior to this analysis, Gill says it had not yet been made clear whether or not MPAs were adequately protecting marine ecosystems and why some were meeting their conservation goals while others were not. Although this work initially attempted to look at social and ecological impacts, he says one major limitation was a lack of data available on the social impacts of MPAs, an aspect of MPAs that he has now chosen to study for his current post-doc research.

“With the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals, many countries right now are focused on reaching coverage targets of 10% of their coastal waters, however, we can’t simply focus on expansion without investing adequately in capacity,” says Gill. “We need to ensure that MPA management has adequate staff and financial resources to carry out critical management activities or else we may just end up creating a lot of paper parks.”

Photo by Toby Hudson. A variety of corals form an outcrop on Flynn Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Queensland, Australia. (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo by Toby Hudson. A variety of corals form an outcrop on Flynn Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Queensland, Australia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mission Blue is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the oceans through the creation of MPAs through its Hope Spots program, among other strategies. Its representatives agree with Gill and his fellow scientists that it’s important not only to protect the most fragile areas of the oceans but to also ensure protection in those areas is properly enforced.

“The ocean is earth’s life support system. No blue, no green,” says Brett Garling, Mission Blue’s director of communications. “Many MPAs around the world do not have adequate resources to enforce the rules on the books. We can improve MPA effectiveness by better funding the organizations that enforce them. Adequately enforced no-take zones absolutely help protect marine species.”