Ocean conservation with an eye toward the future: Managing marine protected areas for climate resilience

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Terrestrial systems have long been the favored child in conservation campaigns and climate policy. This bias is understandable – humans live on land, not in the sea; and what is out of sight is out of mind. However, while we do not immediately think of the oceans as sustaining human society, we have benefited from their services through things such as food supply and climate regulation. Today, marine systems around the world are on the brink of collapse, facing decline from traditional human stressors such as over-fishing and pollution. Unless we act fast, climate change will be the proverbial straw.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have proven a popular tool in protecting marine biodiversity and the associated ecosystem services. An increasing number of studies show that they provide significant economic benefits as well, of up to 920 billion USD and 180,000 jobs by 2050 by some estimates.[1]  However, they have not yet become popular for climate change mitigation or adaptation, even though the climate benefits of MPAs are also well documented.[2] This lack of inclusion is due to multiple factors, but stems from the marine systems not being included in environmental discourse generally, as they largely belong to the global commons, are difficult to observe and monitor, and are vast and complex. MPAs contribute to ocean adaptation and community resilience through protecting ecosystem services and natural infrastructure and can have carbon storage and sequestration benefits as well, namely through the protection of “blue” carbon-rich coastal wetlands. This is to say nothing of the numerous livelihood benefits such as fish stock regeneration, coastal protection, jobs, and cultural significance.[3]

Scientists and policy makers are beginning to understand how to include climate change more holistically into MPA design and management through climate adaptation and mitigation targeting from inception to implementation. For example, in a recent report, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has outlined high-level principles to help include climate change into MPA design:

  1. linking management actions to specific climate impacts
  2. managing for change, not just persistence, especially as climate change perhaps is irreversible within and outside marine protected areas
  3. reconsidering goals, not just strategies, in some cases focusing on sustaining ecological functions, rather than historical assemblages of plants and animals
  4. integrating adaptation into existing work and mainstreaming climate change adaptation into the MPA’s operations.[4]

Making sure MPA site selection, objectives, and management are scientifically determined is key to maximizing the many ecosystem and livelihood benefits that marine conservation can provide. A science-driven approach helps to select sites that are placed strategically in biological areas of importance, including MPA networks, which can connect critical habitats, and aid migrations and displaced species.[5] Likewise, the goals and objectives should be clear, specific, and quantifiable. Once in place, MPA’s also need a clear, scientifically driven mechanism for monitoring and evaluation to facilitate review and adaptive management. It is important to note that ecosystem services and livelihood benefits are difficult to measure. One way to quantify the ecosystem services within a protected area (such as fish stocks, coral reef restoration, conservation of a species, tourist valuation, or other goals) is through an Ecosystem Service Assessment.[6] This tool can also highlight where offsite benefits may occur as well – a phenomenon well-documented in MPAs.

The advantage of the focus on land conservation over the past several decades is the wealth of knowledge we can draw from it. There is a huge opportunity to learn from the challenges and evolution of forest governance and to translate these lessons into the marine context. One of the areas the conservation community has learned the most from is in empowering and engaging coastal communities, a crucial step for an effective and equitable MPA. Over the past decades, enormous strides have been made in this arena, giving marine policymakers a framework to jump off of.

Market mechanisms are also becoming increasingly popular, though not fully trusted. The conservation community’s skepticism of them is understandable, as market-based approaches in the past have not always benefitted poor or vulnerable populations.[7] But, with the proper implementation and guiding principles, there have been increasing successes with carbon credits, payment for ecosystem services, and other market schemes.[8]

Finally, political will on both the local and global scale have to be aligned. This includes national policies that support local projects, as well as MPA objectives that reflect international conservation goals. A broader ocean governance framework at the international level would help to foster support and better manage MPA networks, both within national jurisdiction and in international waters. This is beginning to come to light, as demonstrated by the first UN Ocean Conference last June and the global target of 30% protection for the world’s oceans by the IUCN.[9]

But we are only at the beginning. While MPAs are gaining traction on the global scale, we are still a long way off from sustainably managing the world’s oceans. The scale and quantity of MPAs must increase, but we also need to shift away from the traditional conservation paradigm and toward an adaptive, scientifically-driven, ecosystem-based approach wherein climate objectives are clearly included and benefits to coastal communities are ensured. Our oceans can be managed sustainably to benefit marine resources, aid in climate adaptation and mitigation, and support human populations, but we must act quickly and collectively to rise to this challenge: to protect the oceans upon which we all rely.

Chelsey Bryson is a recent graduate of American University’s M.A. Global Environmental Policy program in Washington, DC. Her research focuses on the intersections between climate change and marine conservation in the context of international policy.

[1] Reuchlin-Hugenholtz and McKenzie, “Marine Protected Areas.”

[2] Callum et al., “Marine Reserves can mitigate and promote adaptation.”

[3] Reuchlin-Hugenholtz and McKenzie, “Marine Protected Areas.”

[4] Simard, Laffoley, and Baxter, Marine Protected Areas and Climate Change.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Preston and Raudsepp-Hearne, Ecosystems Services Toolkit.

[7] Blom, Sunderland, and Murdiyarso, “Getting REDD to work locally.”

[8] See more: http://www.unredd.net/knowledge/redd-plus-technical-issues/safeguards.html

[9] Reuchlin-Hugenholtz and McKenzie, “Marine Protected Areas.”



Blom, Benjamin, Terry Sunderland, and Daniel Murdiyarso. “Getting REDD to work locally: lessons learned from integrated conservation and development projects.” Environmental Science and Policy (2010).

Christie, Michael, Kyriaki Remoundou, Ewa Siwicka, and Warwick Wainwright. “Valuing marine and coastal ecosystem service benefits: Case study of St Vincent and the Grenadines’ proposed marine protected areas.” Ecosystem Services no. 11 (2015): 115-127.

Preston, Susan, and Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne. Completing and Using Ecosystem Service Assessment for Decision-Making: An Interdisciplinary Toolkit for Managers and Analysts. Report (Ottawa, Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Governments of Canada, 2017).

Reuchlin-Hugenholtz, Emilie, and Emily McKenzie. Marine protected areas: Smart investments in ocean health. Report (Gland, Switzerland, World Wildlife Fund, 2015).

Roberts, Callum, Bethan O’Leary, Douglas McCauley, Philippe Cury, Carlos Duarte, Jane Lubchenco, Daniel Pauly, Andrea Sa´enz-Arroyo, Ussif Sumaila, Rod Wilson, Boris Worm, and Juan Castilla. “Marine reserves can mitigate and promote adaptation to climate change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America no. 114:24  (2017): 6167-6175.

Simard, François, Dan Laffoley, and John Baxter (Eds). Marine Protected Areas and Climate Change: Adaptation and Mitigation Synergies, Opportunities and Challenges. Report (Gland, Switzerland, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2016).