Lack of Staffing, Funds Prevent Marine Protected Areas from Realizing Full Potential

March 22, 2017

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.

The research paper, “Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally” was published in Nature today.

After four years assessing data on site management and fish populations in 589 MPAs worldwide, Dr. David Gill of Conservation International and his co-authors discovered that shortfalls in staffing and funding are hindering the recovery of MPA fish populations.

While fish populations grew 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 populations were nearly three times greater than those without adequate personnel. Despite the critical role of local management capacity, only 35 percent of MPAs reported acceptable funding levels.

“Our study identified critical gaps in the effectiveness and equity of marine protected areas,” said Gill, who conducted the research during a postdoctoral fellowship supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and the Luc Hoffmann Institute. “We set out to understand how well marine protected areas are performing and why some perform better than others. What we found was that while most marine protected areas increased fish populations, including MPAs that allow some fishing activity, these increases were far greater in MPAs with adequate staff and budget.”

Marine protected areas are rapidly expanding in number and total area around the world. In 2011, 193 countries committed themselves to the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets, including a goal of “effectively and equitably” managing 10 percent of their coastal and marine areas within MPAs and “other effective area-based conservation measures” by 2020. In the last two years alone, over 2.6 million km2 have been added to the portion of the global ocean covered by MPAs, bringing the total to over 14.9 million km2.

As countries continue to expand their coverage and create new MPAs to achieve national targets, many unanswered questions remain: Are MPAs meeting their social and ecological objectives? Are they being managed “effectively and equitably?” How can we ensure that MPAs deliver the ecological and social benefits they were designed to produce?

Led by Gill, a multinational and multidisciplinary research team worked to answer these key questions. The study used rigorous statistical methods to identify changes in fish populations attributable to the MPA and not due to other pre-existing factors, such as preferentially locating MPAs where threats are low.

“These results highlight the potential for an infusion of resources and staff at established MPAs — and at MPAs in the pipeline — to enhance MPA management and ensure that MPAs realize their full potential,” said Dr. Helen Fox of the National Geographic Society, who led the research initiative together with Dr. Michael B. Mascia of Conservation International. “The good news is that this is a solvable problem. MPAs perform better when they have enough staff and an adequate budget.”

“The risk is that MPAs proliferate without further investment in MPA management, leaving new sites without the resources they need to deliver on their promises. If resources are reallocated to new MPAs from currently protected areas, that could weaken these older sites, too,” added Mascia.

The authors propose policy solutions including increasing investments in MPA management, prioritizing social science research on MPAs and strengthening methods for monitoring and evaluation of MPAs.

David Gill is currently a David H. Smith Research Fellow at Conservation International and George Mason University. Helen Fox and Mike Mascia began the work from the Conservation Science Program of WWF; they are now at National Geographic Society and Conservation International, respectively.

About the study

This research was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875, as part of the working group: Solving the Mystery of Marine Protected Area (MPA) Performance: Linking Governance, Conservation, Ecosystem Services and Human Well Being. David Gill was jointly supported by postdoctoral fellowships from the Luc Hoffmann Institute and SESYNC.

About Conservation International

Conservation International uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, Conservation International works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Conservation International’s first VR film ‘Valen’s Reef’ tells the story of one of the most successful community-driven conservation projects in the world in the world, the Bird’s Head Seascape Initiative. “Valen’s Reef” has been viewed by more than 1.7M people since its release in the end of June 2016. Learn more about Conservation International and the “Nature Is Speaking” campaign, and follow Conservation International’s work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.


SESYNC’s mission is to support synthetic, actionable team science on the structure, functioning and sustainability of socio-environmental systems. The center’s five core objectives are to: enhance the effectiveness of interdisciplinary collaborations among natural and social science research teams focused on environmental problems; build capacity and new communities of socio-environmental researchers; provide education programs to enhance interdisciplinarity and understanding of socio-environmental synthesis; enhance computational capacity to promote socio-environmental synthesis; and enhance relevance of socio-environmental research to decisions and behaviors via actionable scholarship. For more information on SESYNC and its activities, please visit