How Smart Science Makes or Breaks Marine Protected Areas

marine reserve divers photo

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia; via Flickr Creative Commons

Marine protected areas, MPAs, are needed badly across the planet to help ocean ecosystems recover from decades of abuse. And as a global society, we're making progress in creating them. However, sometimes practical human issues take precedence over the science that would make a protected area worthwhile. For instance, last summer we learned how conservation efforts around corals in protected areas focus on the center of the preserve, when actually it's the corals on the edges that need the most attention. It's slip-ups in complete planning like these that make or break MPAs. Fortunately, scientists are working hard to learn what factors lead to the success of an MPA. reports that over 5,000 MPAs exist, and many more are expected to be created for deep sea areas over the next few years, which means scientists have to figure out exactly what makes an MPA successful so that the features can be factored in during their formation. Knowing how an area will recover is necessary for knowing what kind of fishing and diving restrictions need to go into place, what kind of enforcement efforts are needed, and what impact that could have on local communities dependent on the areas for income and sustenance.

As more studies are done on MPAs, the more we find out about what does and doesn't work, and the more effective we can make them. According to the article, Tundi Agardy, an environmental consultant based in Colrain, Massachusetts, completed a paper that identifies five possible shortcomings in MPAs:

1) They're too small
2) They may drive fishing into other areas, rather than curb fishing on the whole
3) There is no enforcement of the restrictions, so they aren't really a "protected" area
4) They're poorly planned and managed
5) The continued harm done to areas just outside their zones hinder recovery of biodiversity within the zones.

There's also the issue of where to put them, and exactly who will enforce them when they fall outside of national boundaries in international waters. We've seen that MPAs can work; for example, corals have a better chance of recovering from heat waves in areas where fishing and pollution are minimized, which happens in MPAs, and endangered African penguins show a clear benefit from enforced fishing restrictions.

So devising marine conservation laws requires solid marine science behind it. The more scientists can provide input on what areas really need to make a solid come-back, the more successful the MPA and the better off yet-to-be-created MPAs will be. After all, having great examples to follow -- such as with the success of boosting shark populations in Glover's Reef in Belize -- the easier it is to create new successes.

MPAs are complicated. Creators have to factor in human wants and needs, from food supplies to stable economies, with the needs of the marine life -- which again is incredibly complicated. For example, the article highlights work done by Mark Christie of Oregon State University in Corvallis, whose team showed that fish larvae were successfully dispersing from an MPA to sites up to 180 kilometres away, essentially restocking distant fisheries. These links and connections are important for knowing how we can maintain balance between fishermen and the fish they catch. "The result means that by combining information about ocean currents with the genetics of larvae captured from the seas, researchers can identify from where the larvae came. That could help pinpoint -- and protect -- the most important spawning areas for species such as Pacific bluefin tuna."

Studying the ups and downs of MPAs, and how their success could improve conditions outside their zones, is wonderful new territory for scientists, and hopefully they'll be able to improve how they're created and enforced, and soon.

Check out these great TED talks on making marine protected areas:
TED Talk: Protecting Our Oceans, One Island at a Time
They're Worth Big Bucks, So Why Are Marine Preserves So Rare?

And also check out: Cool New Map Shows Marine Protected Areas And Their Status Across North America
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How Smart Science Makes or Breaks Marine Protected Areas
Marine protected areas, MPAs, are needed badly across the planet to help ocean ecosystems recover from decades of abuse. And as a global society, we're making progress in creating them.

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