Marine Protected Areas' Social-Ecological Systems

Full Title

Solving the mystery of marine protected area performance: Linking governance, conservation, ecosystem services and human well being


Marine ecosystem services, including fisheries, coastal protection, and marine tourism, play a critical role in the economies of many developing countries, contributing to livelihoods and food security for millions, even as threats to healthy oceans increase. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are key strategies for sustaining the delivery of critical marine ecosystem services, but recent reviews have revealed wide variation in ecological and social outcomes. Our SESYNC Pursuit is an interdisciplinary research initiative to compile, integrate, and analyze governance, biophysical, and social data from MPAs across the globe. We are piloting methods and approaches for this work as we collate and synthesize relevant social, ecological, and biophysical secondary data. Awareness of the importance of marine ecosystem services is growing, as is the recognition that better governance of social-ecological systems is critical to sustainability.

Our interdisciplinary collaborative research team (CRT) will uncover the links between MPA governance and ecosystem structure, function, and services. We will develop and widely distribute an open-source MPA monitoring database to MPA managers, who often struggle to effectively store, manage, process, and analyze monitoring data, especially in developing countries. Widespread adoption of this database would establish a new standard for increasingly rigorous monitoring of MPAs, empowering MPA managers and fostering adaptive management. Through the synthesis of existing information that links MPA governance, ecosystem services, and human well-being, novel insights will emerge that advance fundamental scientific knowledge and inform local-to-global policy and practice.

We are initially piloting methods and approaches for this work in two areas:

  1. The science underpinning the “reserve effect” of MPAs is well developed, but there has been no analysis of how management input to MPAs affects, or does not affect, biological outcomes in terms of species trends within similar reserves. Under UNEP-WCMC and IUCN’s WCPA-SSC Joint Task Force on Biodiversity and Protected Areas, work has been done to address this question in the terrestrial realm, but so far no attempt has been made to specifically link assessments of the outcomes of MPAs (e.g., marine species response data) to their scores on disparate management assessment information for MPAs (e.g., METT/PAME scorecards). This project will expand techniques and expertise developed with the terrestrial assessment to critically evaluate, adapt, and apply these methods to the marine environment, linking freshly collated and up-to-date species and management information. This is an important element of the "effectiveness debate" and is an urgent priority to address in the lead up to the 5th World Parks Congress that will be held in Australia in November 2014.
  2. In the Greater Caribbean we anticipate easier access to interdisciplinary data. We will crosswalk among governance, management assessment, social, ecological, and biophysical data to identify sites with data in common, collate and synthesize relevant social, ecological, and biophysical secondary data, and conduct basic statistical analyses to document and explore the relationship between marine resource governance, management assessments (effectiveness), and ecological outcomes. We anticipate scientific insights emerging that shed light on the role marine ecosystem services, including fisheries, coastal protection, and marine tourism play in the economies, livelihoods, and food security for the Greater Caribbean and elsewhere.  We also anticipate insights from this case study to inform the larger effort.

Our Pursuit participants span various professions, institutions, ethnicities, and career levels, including representatives from academic, governmental, non-governmental, and private sectors. Their diverse backgrounds include biologists and ecologists, anthropologists, economists and other social scientists, and database and decision support specialists.


Project Type
Team Synthesis Project
Principal Investigators
Helen Fox, National Geographic
Robert Pomeroy, University of Connecticut
Michael Mascia, Conservation International
Arun Agrawal, IFRI, University of Michigan
Gabby Ahmadia, WWF
Megan Barnes, University of Hawaii
Xavier Basurto, Duke University
Gonzalo Cid, NOAA
Ian Craigie, James Cook University
Emily Darling, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chris Free, Rutgers University
Ruth Gates, University of Hawaii
Jonas Geldmann, University of Copenhagen
Louise Glew, WWF
Anne Henshaw, Oak Foundation
Nur "Ismu" Hidayat, Conservation International-Indonesia
Susie Holst, NOAA
Olaf Jensen, Rutgers University
Sarah Lester, UC Santa Barbara
Wen Liang, University of Michigan
Caleb McClennen, Wildlife Conservation Society
Patrick McConney, University of the West Indies
Peter Mumby, University of Queensland
Mateja Nenadovic, Duke University
Nasser Olwero, WWF
John Parks, Marine Management Solutions LLC
Maria Pena, University of the West Indies
Estradivari Sant, WWF
Carly Strasser, Moore Foundation
Hannah Thomas, World Conservation Monitoring Centre
Michael Webster, Coral Reef Alliance
Alan White, Coral Triangle Program
Sarah Whitmee, University College London
Stephen Woodley, International Union for Conservation of Nature
Carina Wyborn, WWF

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