Editor’s Note: Xavier Basurto is available for comment at (252) 504-7540 or xavier.basurto@duke.edu

DURHAM, N.C. – Marine protected areas (MPAs) are an increasingly popular strategy for protecting marine biodiversity, but a new global study demonstrates that widespread lack of personnel and funds are preventing MPAs from reaching their full potential. Only nine percent of MPAs reported having adequate staff.

The findings were published in the journal Nature on March 22.

Michael B. Mascia, who received his doctoral degree from Duke University’s  Nicholas School of the Environment and now works at Conservation International, was the study’s second author.

Xavier Basurto, associate professor of sustainability science at the Nicholas School, was also among the 22 scientists who coauthored the new study.  

MPAs, which include marine reserves, sanctuaries, parks, and no-take zones, are areas designated to protect marine species and habitats from both global and local threats.

While fish populations grew in 71 percent of the 589 MPAs studied, the level of recovery of fish was strongly linked to the management of the sites. At MPAs with sufficient staffing, increases in fish populations were nearly three times greater than those without adequate personnel.

Despite the critical role of local management capacity, however, only 35 percent of MPAs reported acceptable funding levels and only nine percent reported adequate staff to manage the MPA.

“Our study identified critical gaps in the effectiveness and equity of marine protected areas,” said lead author David Gill, who conducted the research during a postdoctoral fellowship supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and the Luc Hoffmann Institute. “We set out to understand how well marine protected areas are performing and why some perform better than others. What we found was that while most marine protected areas increased fish populations, including MPAs that allow some fishing activity, these increases were far greater in MPAs with adequate staff and budget.”

Marine protected areas are rapidly expanding in number and total area around the world. In 2011, 193 countries committed themselves to the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets, including a goal of effectively and equitably managing 10 percent of their coastal and marine areas within MPAs and other effective area-based conservation measures by 2020.

In the last two years alone, more than 2.6 million square kilometers have been added to the portion of the global ocean covered by MPAs, bringing the total protected area to more than 14.9 million square kilometers.

As countries continue to expand their coverage and create new MPAs to achieve national targets, many unanswered questions remain: Are MPAs meeting their social and ecological objectives? Are they being managed effectively and equitably? How can we ensure that MPAs deliver the ecological and social benefits they were designed to produce?

Led by Gill, the multinational and multidisciplinary research team worked to answer these key questions. The study used rigorous statistical methods to identify changes in fish populations attributable to the MPA and not due to other pre-existing factors, such as preferentially locating MPAs where threats are low.

“These results highlight the potential for an infusion of resources and staff at established MPAs – and at MPAs in the pipeline – to enhance MPA management and ensure that MPAs realize their full potential,” said Helen Fox of the National Geographic Society, who co-led the research initiative with Mascia. “The good news is that this is a solvable problem. MPAs perform better when they have enough staff and an adequate budget.”

“The risk is that MPAs proliferate without further investment in MPA management, leaving new sites without the resources they need to deliver on their promises. If resources are reallocated to new MPAs from currently protected areas, that could weaken these older sites, too,” added Mascia.

The authors propose policy solutions including increasing investments in MPA management, prioritizing social science research on MPAs, and strengthening methods for monitoring and evaluation of MPAs.

The research was supported by SESYNC under funding received from the National Science Foundation (grant #DBI-1052875). 

In addition to coauthoring the new study, Xavier Basurto also sits on the Scientific Review Panel Committee of SESYNC.


CITATION: “Capacity Shortfalls Hinder the Performance of Marine Protected Areas Globally,” David Gill, Michael Mascia, Gabby Ahmadia, Louise Glew, Sarah Lester, Megan Barnes, Ian Craigie, Emily Darling, Christopher Free, Jonas Geldmann, Susie Holst, Olaf Jensen, Alan White, Xavier Basurto, Lauren Coad, Ruth Gates Greg Guannel, Peter Mumby, Hannah Thomas, Sarah Whitmee, Stephen Woodley, and Helen Fox; Nature; March 22, 2017: DOI: 10.1038/nature21708

Note: This story is adapted from a National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center news release. To read SESYNC’s full version, go here.