Breaking News: Marine reserves don’t work (well enough)

Marine reserves won’t save the oceans. Not now. Maybe never.

So say Camilo Mora and Peter F. Sale in their paper published today. If they’re right, and if people listen, it’s going to stir things up big-time in the conservation world.











Nature reserves, parks, protected areas… whatever you want to call them… those bits of the planet we set aside for the wild, are reckoned by many to be the holy grail of conservation. They give us a triumphant win-win solution: help ourselves – help the planet.

But, according to Mora and Sale, protected areas on land and in the sea are failing to deliver on all those conservation promises. Even though we’re protecting more of the planet than ever before, wild species are still in decline. Local success stories are being drowned out by a global slump in biodiversity.

Dr Sale said:

“Protected areas are very useful conservation tools, but unfortunately, the steep continuing rate of biodiversity loss signals the need to reassess our heavy reliance on this strategy.”

So what to make of all this?

Here are Seamonster, we’re marine ecologists. We love the oceans but are driven ultimately by science and not simply by what we believe to be true. Mora and Sale make a lot of really important points. But they also chose a particular standpoint from where they declare their verdict: they took a giant a step back, picked up a huge brush, and painted a coarse picture of the state of the planet and our efforts to protect it.

What details are we missing here?

OK – first up – the paper. What did Mora and Sale do and what do they say? It’s a big, dense paper, definitely worth reading (and it’s open access, so anyone can take a look), and I’m not going to go through it in detail here. But in brief…

What they did:

They got hold of data on 1) the total size of protected areas since the 1960s and compared it up against 2) the living planet index – a measure of how vertebrate species are getting on worldwide.

They did the same thing with protected area coverage and percent coral cover for reefs in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific.

What they found:

Over time, both the living planet index and coral cover go down at the same time as coverage of protected areas goes up. i.e. more protection = worse state of the planet = protected areas aren’t working.

And they make some very important points:

There aren’t enough of protected areas, they lack connectivity, conservationists are too eager to proclaim their benefits, they cost too much, and they clash with human development targets.

And then there are all those global problems that pay little or no attention to invisible boundaries drawn across land and sea – global warming, ocean acidification, and alien species being the key suspects.

Mora and Sale waggle a cautionary finger, pointing out that oftentimes protected areas may seem to be working when really they aren’t. Among the evidence for this is Willis et al’s 2003 study that argues for a more robust interpretation of ‘statistically significant’ effects of marine reserves.

They also point out the problem of scale, that “variations in richness, abundance, or diversity are usually scale dependent and more pronounced at larger spatial scales.”

And it is on the issue of scale that I feel most uneasy.

This is emphatically a big-picture study. Mora and Sale are essentially trying to take the biological pulse of the planet, a proxy for the messy, complicated business of ecosystems and biodiversity (a similar sort of aim is underway with the Ocean Health Index project – with a team hunting for the Dow Jones of the oceans). And they’re using that health proxy to show that the medicine we’re currently prescribing isn’t working.

Does this give us a true understanding of what is going on? What do we miss from the nuance of the local?

But maybe that is their point – local won’t matter if we don’t do something about the big problems. If we don’t figure those out, we may as well give up on the beautiful but small projects that save a coral reef here, a mangrove forest there.

Protected areas are the backyard solution to conservation problems. They are the main way to tackle issues at a local, or even regional scale. Done properly, marine protected areas are the way to boost local fish stocks and catches, prevent coral reefs from being bashed apart by anchors and dynamite, and empower communities and give them a sense of ownership and responsibility for their local piece of coast.

At least that’s what most of us have thought until now.

Take away this reassuring, not-exactly-rocket-science approach to conservation, and we’re being forced to look deeper, to gaze into the fearsome, nebulous problems of human population growth and the massive footprint we are treading all over the planet’s natural resources. Where and how do we start tackling those problems?

Mora and Sale are right to question our beliefs in land and marine reserves. If this encourages people to assess reserves properly and figure a way of paying for them, then good. But I only hope this study won’t create a backlash against protected areas. I fear anti-reserve lobbies will jump on these findings and use them to bolster resistance against programmes that are pushing hard for protection – like the UK network currently in the grass roots planning stages.

This study isn’t saying we should give up on marine reserves. But it suggests that they’re being used as the Elastoplast of ocean conservation, a way of making ourselves feel better, when in fact we aren’t addressing the underlying causes. But aren’t protected areas vital to keep things going, to give ecosystems the best chance of hanging in there, while we crack the bigger problems of climate change and acidified seas?

We’d love to hear what you think.

11 Responses to “Breaking News: Marine reserves don’t work (well enough)”

  1. Mark Eakin says:

    I applaud Mora and Sale for taking a very frank look at a holy grail of conservation. It is often difficult to call into question one of the best accepted tools of conservation. However, there are issues that plague any study of this scale, including the wide range of protection offered in the suite of MPAs (and probably PAs) studied here. Some of these MPAs are completely protected (including no-take), while others provide very limited protection. Even in the US, many MPAs have no more protection from fishing than surrounding non-MPA waters. This really raises the question of how protected are they, anyway? This is more of an issue in MPAs than terrestrial PAs, after all why is it that there is no hunting in US National Parks but spearfishing is allowed?

    The Mora and Sale study also does not investigate if declines have been slowed in MPAs relative to non-protected areas. It does not address whether MPAs protect biodiversity locally. It would be more informative if they had shown how the “Living Planet Index” fared within MPAs compared to nearby non-MPA areas of similar community composition.

    What this study really shows is that MPAs are not enough to save biodiversity by themselves. This is a very valuable point. However, because there is indeed an interest in protecting parts of our backyards, we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. MPAs may not be “enough”, but they are certainly better than nothing. They may indeed protect many species from loss or collapse in limited areas while we try to tackle the thornier underlying problems.

  2. SeaMonster has just been a gushing faucet of uplifting news this week. I know, don’t shoot the messenger! I most definitely have some thoughts on the Mora & Sale paper. Keep an eye out over at DSN.

  3. Dusty says:

    I agree with Dr Eakin. MPAs range from ‘paper parks’ to well-managed to well-patrolled systems. Overall, they may not be as effective as we wish them to be but they still likely essential to an overall conservation strategy.

    The figure that you show here from the paper does not show causation. It simply shows that over the past half century, as the coverage of protected areas had increased, biodiversity has continued to decrease. Without waxing hypothetical regarding the situation if such protected areas were not around, I feel that this is an oversimplification of the state of global diversity and its causes.

    MPAs should not, and largely are not, billed as a silver bullet to solve the diversity issue and have us riding low-emission unicorns to work to boot. We cannot expect small, spatially isolated, heavily politically-influenced biological safe havens to turn the current biodiversity crisis around. Large factors (pollution, rapid climate change and other carbon cycle perturbations, i.e. ocean acidification, habitat destruction, overexploitive extraction techniques, etc.) are still at play that must be addressed. But there is empirical evidence that show that MPAs can help in the meantime. For example, MPAs have been linked to faster coral recovery and the prevention of coral loss , to focus on our beloved cnidarians.

    Of course protected areas should be designed in tandem with both environmental goals and sustainable human development in mind and they could be done better, but they are still very important.

    This being said, I have not read this paper yet, but I applaud SeaMonster and Helen for bringing this to our attention and for providing a useful first look.

  4. Adam Smith says:

    I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that marine protected areas were the be all and end all of marine conservation. They only cover a tiny proportion of our oceans and fishing is only one of the many impacts that humans have on marine ecosystems. Marine reserves are mostly very successful at doing what they are supposed to do, which is to protect ecosystems at a local scale and allowing larger individuals to live and breed. This headline is a bit of a spin, in my opinion.

  5. Kevin Zelnio says:

    I think we should at least recognize that what reserves do is allow activities to stop (where enforced anyways – my gut is still reeling from the Galapagos sharks story) in ecologically important areas such that it buys us time to think. Fixing the bigger problems, as you suggest, are probably near to impossible, if only because we cannot get that many nations to comply or agree on standards of protections.

    This gets back to what do we spend our time and efforts preserving. Huge swaths of ocean and coastline or target nurseries? The debate is endless but important.

  6. I fully share Helens concerns.
    The problem is that local protection is so much vital as it arises people’s awareness and focusses our energy on a point where we can make a change – and that such local projects can at the same time be abused as an apology not to support bigger conservation projects.

  7. Justin Enjo says:

    I fully agree with Mora and Sale, that not only are MPA’s uneffective, but worst, they detract from the large issue. The problems we face are now global (warming, acidification, etc.) and therefore the only effective solution would essentially have to be; global. Mind you, resource exploration, over-fishing, oil spills and other disastrous trends are still on the rise. Therefore what good does your whale sanctuary off Florida do if whales are still being slaughter in other parts of the world?

    My solution? Remember the Vietnam war protests? Without a massive visual response and expression of concern from the global population all will be lost.

    • Helen Scales says:

      Justin, you make an interesting point about reserves detracting from the bigger issues – I wonder if there’s any evidence to show that’s happening? And yes, protecting migratory species (like whales) inside marine reserves is obviously one of the big stumbling blocks, although research is showing that for many species there are important areas that could benefit from protection e.g. the Pacific ‘shark cafe’ identified by the folk at TOPP and just a few days ago, a paper on important areas for marine mammals

  8. Helen Scales says:

    Looks like the marine reserve debate is going to rumble on for a while to come. Thanks for all your thoughts everyone.

    Clearly there has to be a balance to strike between pushing for more reserves and making real, concrete progress with the global issues. How about we aim for both, side by side?

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