Key to protecting the ocean? Money and manpower, study finds

Man fishing in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

A man uses a traditional fishing spear in the Ayau Marine Protected Area in Raja Ampat, Indonesia instead of illegal fishing methods such as using explosives or cyanide. The protected area’s fish population has rebounded due to effective management, including adequate staffing and budget. (© Conservation International/Janny “Heintje” Rotinsulu)

Editor’s note: You can draw lines on a map to “protect” an area of ocean, but does that mean that local communities and wildlife will be better off? According to new research, the answer is “not necessarily.”  

A new paper published in the journal Nature offers data to back up something conservationists have argued for a long time: Marine protected areas (MPAs) need adequate money and staff to reach their full potential (as a recent groundbreaking initiative in Indonesia illustrates).

Two of the study’s authors — lead researcher and visiting scholar at Conservation International (CI) David Gill, and CI Senior Director of Social Science Mike Mascia — recently sat down to discuss the three questions their research sought to answer and what their conclusions mean for MPAs around the world.

Mike Mascia (MM): David, the research team set out to understand how well MPAs are performing and why some perform better than others. You sifted through data from over 4,000 management assessments and over 16,000 fish survey sites around the world, and boiled that down to 433 MPAs in 70 countries with management data, and 218 MPAs in 38 countries with fish survey data (62 MPAs with both), which is just incredible. Can you explain how you split up your research and what you found?

David Gill (DG): We set out to answer three main questions: How are MPAs being managed? What impacts do MPAs have on fish populations? And, lastly, what are the links between MPA management and impacts?

In terms of how MPAs are being managed, we found that not only are a disappointingly low number of MPAs being effectively and equitably managed, but there are two key components that they’re lacking: adequate funding and staffing. While overall most MPAs have the legislation in place and have rules governing use, in terms of capacity, we found that things were not so good. This is where we found that only 35 percent said they had an acceptable budget to manage the protected area, and only 9 percent said they had adequate staff to carry out critical management activities.

Hammerhead sharks in Galápagos

The Galápagos Marine Reserve, home to large populations of hammerhead sharks, pictured, and whale sharks, is considered one of the most well-managed marine protected areas in the world. (© Jeff Litton/Marine Photobank)

MM: Can you go into more detail about the second and third questions in the paper, which cover fish recovery and the relationship with management?

DG: We found that, on average, around 71 percent of MPAs saw increases in fish population relative to non-MPA locations. Perhaps not surprisingly, that effect was stronger where fishing is prohibited (no-take areas). However, even MPAs that allow some fishing show positive effects because they have regulations that reduce human pressure on fish populations.

When we looked at all of the indicators on the management side, staff capacity and budget were by far the strongest predictors of fish population outcomes. That’s even accounting for other factors like the size of the MPA, the age of the MPA, whether it allowed fishing or not, etc. Most MPAs deliver some kind of ecological benefit, but the magnitude of benefit that protection provided was strongly linked to available staffing and budget. MPAs with adequate staffing and budget had fish recoveries three times as large as those without adequate capacity.

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MM: Was there a specific benefit to staffing or resources that we can point to for the increase in fish populations? Such as more people to monitor for illegal fishers?

DG: We assumed there would be, but interestingly, it’s not as simple as more bodies equals more enforcement. There’s no one factor that we can point to: MPAs reporting shortfalls in staffing highlighted enforcement needs, yes, but also staffing shortfalls in administration, tourism management, community engagement, and other various components of management.

What makes this even more interesting for me is that these management needs were highlighted by managers and MPA stakeholders, and these needs correlated directly to what’s going on in the water. So there’s this direct link between the qualitative and quantitative data, which is fascinating and really points to the value of people’s perceptions in management.

© Greg McFall/NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr Creative Commons

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai‘i, pictured, was expanded in 2016. When protected areas are established or expanded, there is both opportunity and risk. (© Greg McFall/NOAA’s National Ocean Service/Flickr Creative Commons)

MM: In terms of what we can do with this information, we’ve got opportunity and we’ve got risk. As we continue to expand the number and size of MPAs globally, while focusing on international conservation goals, we must be cognizant of available staff and budget capacity, and of devoting adequate resources to ensure that existing and future resources reach their full potential. 

DG: Exactly. We’ve got the opportunity to make investments in staffing and budget to allow people to do their jobs effectively, to manage these protected sites well, and get the recoveries that are possible. The risk, however, is that as MPAs proliferate, if there isn’t a corresponding increase in capacity, you may wind up spreading your resources thin. This could result in both the old and new MPAs underperforming because they’re not fully resourced. It’s wonderful that we’re in this period of rapid growth with MPAs globally, but while the opportunity is clear, so is the risk if we are not cognizant of capacity needs.

MM: Returning to the equity component of management, can you expand on your findings and how that leads in to your current research?

DG: With regard to equity in management processes, only 51 percent of the 433 MPAs stated that stakeholders are directly involved in decision-making. Involving those affected by an MPA is the right thing to do. But also from a pragmatic or policy standpoint: You get better ideas from people on how to manage, how they are being affected by management, and then you get better support and compliance as a result.

But data on the social impacts of MPAs, as well as issues surrounding equity in terms of MPA outcomes, were a big part of what we couldn’t find in our research. Thus, my current post-doctoral research here at CI is looking how coastal communities are affected by MPAs. I am also interested in finding out whether certain groups are benefiting more from MPAs — for example, in certain parts of the world, some tourism stakeholders benefit greatly from MPA establishment, but then others involved in fishing are disadvantaged.

We therefore need to explore the questions of synergies and tradeoffs, between ecological and social impacts, and between different social groups. In the end, we hope to better understand the conditions that lead to positive and equitable social and ecological benefits. I think that’s something we should be heading toward.

MM: I agree. This research is a real illustration of the power of science to inform decisions. Not only in terms of understanding where to work and priority-setting around the planet, but also how to work and why. This is one example of really good science, cutting-edge methods, that helps us understand why things happen the way they do and that’s the kind of thing we need in order to be smarter about the choices that we make.

David Gill is a visiting scholar at CI. Mike Mascia is the senior director of social science at CI.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI.

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