you're reading...


Can a little bit of a good thing be worse than nothing at all?

Research reviewed: Turnbull, J. W., Johnston, E. L., & Clark, G. F. (2021). Evaluating the social and ecological effectiveness of partially protected marine areas. Conservation Biology, cobi.13677. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13677

Two kayaks in a wide, flat ocean

MPAs can protect recreation opportunities, like kayaking the seas off Adelaide, Australia. (Credit: Magdalena Love on Unsplash.

There’s a range of “protection” in marine protected areas

Let’s travel for a moment to the shores of southern Australia, where big swells crash into rocky headlands, tides seep through mudflats and mangroves, and waves lap gently on beaches dotted with surfers and sunbathers.

These dynamic seas are increasingly managed as marine protected areas, or MPAs. MPAs are an important marine conservation tool, in Australia and around the globe. These are stretches of the ocean where human activities are regulated, in the hopes of helping to preserve a healthy ocean ecosystem and support the human communities that rely on it.

MPAs can be created for different reasons, but typically stem from a desire to protect marine biodiversity and ecosystem processes from extractive activities, like commercial fishing or oil drilling. But, as MPA proponents point out, these areas do more than limit extraction. MPAs can also improve opportunities for marine recreation, from boating to fishing to SCUBA diving. They can offer schools and universities places for education and research. They can protect cultural resources, from traditional fishing grounds to shipwreck sites.

The term MPA covers a wide range of regulations, as areas are managed differently to allow for all of these uses. At the highest level of protection, human activity in the MPA is extremely limited: no fishing, no aquaculture, no oil exploration, no boating allowed. At the other end of the protection spectrum, MPAs allow these activities. Many MPAs sit between the two extremes, allowing certain types of fishing, boating, and other human activities.

In southern Australia, the ocean is dotted with MPAs that vary in their level of protection. Fully protected MPAs disallow fishing, while partially protected MPAs allow recreational fishing or collection of marine organisms. Those allowances have made partially protected MPAs attractive in the eyes of ocean managers and the public; as a result, partially protected MPAs are three times as common as fully protected MPAs in southern Australia. That has led some to wonder about whether partially protecting the ocean is an effective way to meet social and ecological goals.

Some amount of protection should be better than no protection at all, right?

That’s exactly the question a team of researchers set out to answer.

Map depicting Australian waters with some areas partially and fully protected

This map, courtesy of MPAtlas, shows some of the fully (dark blue) and partially protected (teal) MPAs across Australia’s waters. (Credit: MPAtlas.)

Scoping the social and ecological scene

In assessing the impact of full versus partial protection, researchers wanted to understand both the social and ecological promises of marine protection. Their assessment included both biological metrics— like measuring coral health, fish populations, and biodiversity— as well as metrics that capture human use and values— like the prevalence of recreation activities, perceived beauty of the area, or general awareness of the area. They analyzed data across these metrics for a set of fully protected and partially protected areas across Australia’s Great Southern Reef. To make sure they had a fair comparison, they included non-MPAs, or open sites, in their study as well.

To gather data for the study, researchers spent time on the coast at each of their study sites, observing human activities. They counted the number of people they saw taking part in fishing, walking, SCUBA diving, and the like. Researchers stopped some of these fishers and recreators for interviews, querying them about their perception of the area. Did they think fishing was allowed here? Why did they come to the site? Did they think it had a healthy ecosystem? In their opinion, how had the site changed in their lifetimes?

They buttressed this with ecological data on the sites. One important source of data came from the Reef Life Survey, a project in which volunteer divers and scientists work together to gather observations on ocean habitats, including fish counts and habitat assessments.

In pulling together these various social and ecological data sources, researchers were able to ascertain a holistic assessment of Australia’s protected areas. They found promising outcomes in the fully protected areas, where both social and ecological indicators showed that marine protection was achieving its conservation promises. But in partially protected areas? The story wasn’t so rosy.

Surfers catching waves in a teal sea

As part of the study, researchers counted the number of people engaged in different ocean activities– like these surfers in Sydney, Australia. (Credit: Kevin Bosc on Unsplash.)

Partially protected areas as a “red herring” in ocean conservation

When researchers assessed the ecological state of all three types of sites, they found that the partially protected areas score no higher than unprotected, open sites on any ecological metric. Partially protected areas fared worse on fish and invertebrate biomass and diversity, telling indications of a poorer marine environment.

When interviewed, ocean users at the partially protected areas tended to believe they were in a fully protected area. Because of that, they assumed fish populations, biodiversity, and habitats would be healthier in these partially protected sites. The data shows that’s not the case. Somehow, people are led astray by the idea of protection, and ready to see healthy ecosystems where they don’t exist.

Partially protected MPAs, the researchers argue, are a distraction from effective ocean conservation. People assume some protection is better than nothing, so they support this approach and devote resources to creating more partially protected MPAs. As a result, already-slim budgets for ocean conservation are siphoned away on these ineffective measures, leading researchers to dub them the “red herring” of ocean conservation.

Given that, should we eschew partially protected areas forever? Not so fast, researchers say. There’s still a place for these quasi-protected areas. Allowing some extractive activities can be important in supporting the needs of particular ocean user groups. By designing partially protected areas that allow some fishing, for example, space can be made for recreational or subsistence fishing communities.

But when it comes to delivering on ecological metrics of ocean health? Partial protection is worse than no protection at all.

Solo human casts fishing line into sea from a rocky cliff

Partial protection still has a role in ocean management, especially in supporting the needs of recreational or subsistence fishing communities. (Credit: Britt Gaiser on Unsplash.)


No comments yet.

Post a Comment


  • by oceanbites 3 months ago
    Happy Earth Day! Take some time today to do something for the planet and appreciate the ocean, which covers 71% of the Earth’s surface.  #EarthDay   #OceanAppreciation   #Oceanbites   #CoastalVibes   #CoastalRI 
  • by oceanbites 4 months ago
    Not all outdoor science is fieldwork. Some of the best days in the lab can be setting up experiments, especially when you get to do it outdoors. It’s an exciting mix of problem solving, precision, preparation, and teamwork. Here is
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    Being on a research cruise is a unique experience with the open water, 12-hour working shifts, and close quarters, but there are some familiar practices too. Here Diana is filtering seawater to gather chlorophyll for analysis, the same process on
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #oceanbites  we are featuring Hannah Collins  @hannahh_irene  Hannah works with marine suspension feeding bivalves and microplastics, investigating whether ingesting microplastics causes changes to the gut microbial community or gut tissues. She hopes to keep working
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    Leveling up - did you know that crabs have a larval phase? These are both porcelain crabs, but the one on the right is the earlier stage. It’s massive spine makes it both difficult to eat and quite conspicuous in
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Cierra Braga. Cierra works ultraviolet c (UVC) to discover how this light can be used to combat biofouling, or the growth of living things, on the hulls of ships. Here, you
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Elena Gadoutsis  @haysailor  These photos feature her “favorite marine research so far: From surveying tropical coral reefs, photographing dolphins and whales, and growing my own algae to expose it to different
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on Oceanbites we are featuring Eliza Oldach. According to Ellie, “I study coastal communities, and try to understand the policies and decisions and interactions and adaptations that communities use to navigate an ever-changing world. Most of
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Jiwoon Park with a little photographic help from Ryan Tabata at the University of Hawaii. When asked about her research, Jiwoon wrote “Just like we need vitamins and minerals to stay
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring  @riley_henning  According to Riley, ”I am interested in studying small things that make a big impact in the ocean. Right now for my master's research at the University of San Diego,
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Gabby Stedman. Gabby is interested in interested in understanding how many species of small-bodied animals there are in the deep-sea and where they live so we can better protect them from
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Shawn Wang! Shawn is “an oceanographer that studies ocean conditions of the past. I use everything from microfossils to complex computer models to understand how climate has changed in the past
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Today we are highlighting some of our awesome new authors for  #WriterWednesday  Today we have Daniel Speer! He says, “I am driven to investigate the interface of biology, chemistry, and physics, asking questions about how organisms or biological systems respond
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Here at Oceanbites we love long-term datasets. So much happens in the ocean that sometimes it can be hard to tell if a trend is a part of a natural cycle or actually an anomaly, but as we gather more
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    Have you ever seen a lobster molt? Because lobsters have exoskeletons, every time they grow they have to climb out of their old shell, leaving them soft and vulnerable for a few days until their new shell hardens. Young, small
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    A lot of zooplankton are translucent, making it much easier to hide from predators. This juvenile mantis shrimp was almost impossible to spot floating in the water, but under a dissecting scope it’s features really come into view. See the
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    This is a clump of Dead Man’s Fingers, scientific name Codium fragile. It’s native to the Pacific Ocean and is invasive where I found it on the east coast of the US. It’s a bit velvety, and the coolest thing
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    You’ve probably heard of jellyfish, but have you heard of salps? These gelatinous sea creatures band together to form long chains, but they can also fall apart and will wash up onshore like tiny gemstones that squish. Have you seen
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    Check out what’s happening on a cool summer research cruise! On the  #neslter  summer transect cruise, we deployed a tow sled called the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System. This can take pictures of gelatinous zooplankton (like jellyfish) that would be
  • by oceanbites 1 year ago
    Did you know horseshoe crabs have more than just two eyes? In these juveniles you can see another set in the middle of the shell. Check out our website to learn about some awesome horseshoe crab research.  #oceanbites   #plankton   #horseshoecrabs 
WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com