Theory Meets Practice

Marine protected areas overwhelmingly manage with climate change in mind
Harrison Tasoff
Shark swimming in very blue water

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of many marine protected areas around the globe that safeguards biodiversity, cultural heritage and marine resources. Photo Credit: Cori Lopazanski

Darcy Bradley, a senior ocean scientist at The Nature Conservancy and a former director of UC Santa Barbara’s Environmental Markets Lab., and Cori Lopazanski, a doctoral student at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, want conservation science to be informing real-world needs.

They were particularly curious how much science was finding its way into the management plans of marine protected areas, or MPAs. The pair led a study investigating the management plans for 555 marine protected areas to clarify how the documents incorporated recommendations for climate resilience. The team found that many plans contain forward-looking strategies, even when they didn’t explicitly reference “climate change” or related terms. The heartening results appear in the journal Conservation Letters.

This is the first study to examine this question in detail on an international scale. The authors considered marine protected areas of various sizes, locations and layouts across 52 countries, with plans written in nine languages. Their list included practically any marine reserve that barred extractive activities at least somewhere within its borders, including the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, just off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Previous studies mostly focused on the explicit language of management plans. This literal approach gave the appearance that marine protected areas weren’t being managed effectively for climate change. In contrast, Lopazanski, Bradley and their co-authors searched the plans for strategies that promote resilience.

A holistic review revealed that Management plans overwhelmingly contained key principles for building resilience, even when they didn’t explicitly mention climate change. Roughly speaking, 94% outlined long-term objectives, 99% included threat-reduction strategies, 98% had monitoring programs, and 93% incorporated adaptive management.

Adaptive management offers dynamic protection. “We don’t have a ton of evidence about which types of climate strategies are going to be most effective well into the future because climate change impacts are a moving target,” Bradley said. So she was thrilled to see how many management plans incorporated principles of adaptive management.

Managing with the future in mind is particularly important in our changing world. The authors compiled many different management strategies in the paper, highlighting some they think are underutilized. They also peppered the study with examples and lessons from different MPAs.

This research was a collaboration between academic scientists and conservation practitioners supported by the Arnhold UC Santa Barbara-Conservation International Collaborative. It was intentionally designed to gather information that would be immediately actionable and useful for real-world MPA management. A document to bring academics and managers just a bit closer together.