The secret of successful marine protected areas? People.

Shocking: the reserves only thrive when properly staffed and funded

At 582,578 square miles, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is not just the United States’ largest marine protected area—it’s currently the largest marine protected area in the world.

The monument, a stepladder-shaped oceanic expanse dotted with atolls, shoals, and islands northeast of Hawaii’s island of Kauai, was created by President Bush in 2006 and expanded by President Obama in 2016. The goal of Papahānaumokuākea, and of marine protected areas more broadly, is to spare it from the spoilage that frequently happens in unprotected areas: overfishing, pollution, and degradation.

“It’s no secret that the oceans are in disrepair,” said Seth Horstmeyer, a director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Program. “Marine protected areas are one of the tools we have in our toolbox to improve the health of the oceans.”

But a new study out today in the journal Nature cautions that designating a region as a marine protected area isn’t a panacea. The study authors found that though most marine protected areas did provide some protective benefit, more than a quarter did not. And among those that did provide protection, the amount of protection varied quite a bit. The biggest differentiator? People. Specifically, marine protected areas with enough staff to monitor the region, enforce rules, engage with the community, and carry out sustainable activities had much better outcomes.

yellow fish and coral reef in indonesia
Yellow fish and coral reef in the ocean in Birds Head Seascape, Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia. Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

Until now, most research into the efficacy of marine protected areas came from management theories and small-scale case studies. “But,” wrote Boris Worm (a biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada who wasn’t involved in the study) in an editorial, “their success has been varied and uneven in practice.”

To rectify that gap, the researchers in this study created a database on the management of 433 marine protected areas from around the globe, then analyzed them based on nine specific performance points ranging from staffing to use of scientific analysis in decision making. They then cross-referenced the management data with a separate database they’d constructed from data on 218 marine protected areas assessing effects on local fish populations—a proxy for broader marine health.

Of the 433 marine protected reserves assessed on management techniques, most failed to meet the threshold for effective management. Although 79 percent had legal protections, only 13 percent used results from scientific monitoring to inform management of the marine protected areas—which is kind of like going in for a checkup and not taking your doctor’s advice; or worse, not going in for a checkup at all.

Among the 218 reserves assessed based on fish health, marine protected areas had 1.6 times as many fish on average when compared to similar, unprotected regions. This is important, because marine protected areas can play a vital role in replenishing fish stocks.

Finally, when the researchers looked at the cross-linked data—that is, when they looked at the 62 marine protected reserves for which they had data on both fish population and management practices—”adequate staff capacity was the most important factor in explaining fish responses to MPA [marine protected area] protection” wrote the study authors.

“In general it makes sense,” said Horstmeyer, who was not involved in the research. “Proper funding and staffing is important to ensure that marine reserves aren’t just what we call ‘paper parks.’ That they aren’t simply lines on a map, rather than fully-funded, managed area—so they’re actually achieving the goals that they set out to achieve, which is to improve the health of the oceans.”

Researchers and policy makers need to know what makes marine protected areas tick, because we need them more than ever. While in the past the biggest threats to the ocean may have been overfishing and pollution, increasingly the biggest threat is climate change—a runaway train of warming oceans and increasing acidification.

And, said Horstmeyer, “There’s an increasing body of research that show marine reserves could have a positive effect on making the ocean ecosystem more resilient to climate change.”