George Mason University

News at Mason

Research finds staffing, funding keys to success of marine protected areas

May 1, 2017   /   by John Hollis

School of schoolmasters (Lutjanus apodus) and grunts (Haemulidae) within the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize. Established in 1987, the Hol Chan marine reserve is Belize’s oldest marine protected area. It is located on the Meso-American Barrier reef, which is the second largest barrier reef in the world. Funding for the reserve’s management is supported by access fees from visitors. PHoto provided by David Gill.

It’s not enough to designate marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world if a lack of funds and adequate personnel prevent them from being effective. 
That was the call to arms from David Gill, a David H. Smith Research Fellow at Conservation International, working with Chris Kennedy in Mason’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy. His findings were published March 22 in the journal Nature. 
MPAs, which include marine reserves, sanctuaries, parks and no-take zones, are areas designated to protect marine species and habitats from both global and local threats such as pollution, overfishing and climate change.
“It’s like building a whole bunch of new hospitals, but then not having enough doctors and nurses to fully staff them and make them effective,” Gill said.
Gill spent four years compiling and analyzing data on site management and fish populations from 589 MPAs. He found that a dearth of financial resources and staffing are preventing MPAs from reaching their full potential, hindering the recovery of MPA fish populations around the world and continuing to put global coastlines and sensitive marine habitats at risk.
MPAs have expanded significantly around the globe in both number and total area in recent years, particularly following a 2011 international agreement in which 193 countries pledged to “effectively and equitably” manage 10 percent of their coastal and marine areas within MPAs and “other effective area-based conservation measures” by 2020. 
But shortfalls in funding and in staffing in particular have limited MPAs’ efficiency. Gill found that in 71 percent of MPAs studied, the level of recovery of fish was strongly linked to the management of the sites. At MPAs with sufficient staffing, increases in fish population were nearly three times greater than those without adequate personnel. 
Only 35 percent of MPAs reported acceptable funding levels, while just 9 percent said they had adequate staff numbers needed for critical tasks such as enforcing rules, monitoring fish populations and overseeing tourism.
“The capacity shortfalls observed in MPAs globally could be preventing many MPAs from reaching their full potential,” Gill said.
Improved efficiency would translate into downstream benefits for both the tourism operators inside the MPA and the fishermen outside of it who depend on a robust fish population to eat and make a living, Gill said.
Gill worries the continued proliferation of MPAs without additional investment in management means new sites won’t be able to deliver on their promise to protect the environment, and that current sites will be less capable of meeting their goals as well. 
In addition to added financial resources, Gill suggests further public engagement and staff training and improved capacity for scientific assessment to maximize the benefits of MPAs.
“Marine conservation does work,” he said, “and there’s an opportunity for us to do it better with investments.”