The evolving need to understand Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

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By Jenn Caselle, University of California, Santa Barbara

Without a doubt, the International Marine Protected Areas Congress has evolved over the years. The first Congress was held in 2005 in Geelong, Australia, with the second occurring in 2009 in Washington, D.C. Today we find ourselves in Marseille, France for the third convening—and the progress that has been made over this relatively short period has been tremendous.

Participants of the 2005 Congress discussed the emerging science in broad terms and found themselves bogged down in the definition of marine protected areas (MPAs). The concepts were still relatively new and concrete examples of science-based MPAs that had been designed, adopted and successfully implemented were few and far between. By 2009, conversations had shifted to the roles of agencies and stakeholders in MPA development and the science had notably progressed to take on more advanced topics such as connectivity and whole ecosystem responses.  Today, four years later, the discussions have taken on a new level of diversity and urgency, with the stated goal of charting a course toward achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11, which calls for protecting 10 percent of the world’s ocean by 2020.

Participants at this year’s Congress are incredibly diverse: we represent more than 80 countries throughout the world and ecosystems ranging from the polar regions to coral reefs.  We come from backgrounds and disciplines so varied that one would be hard pressed to find us together at nearly any other conference. Yet we’re able to take the one thing that unites us—MPAs—and find the common ground to stimulate a week’s worth of conversation.

As the Science Coordinator for Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), my work centers on large-scale field-based monitoring programs for kelp forests in the California Current. I do this work inside and outside of MPAs along the West Coast and spend a whole lot of time underwater. I enjoy this work immensely, yet here in Marseille, it’s nice to step outside of this world and learn from a multi-disciplinary community of people about the many facets of their ocean work. This represents a remarkable opportunity.

In a single day, I have engaged in discussions on the movement patterns of young fish and reef ecology with university and agency scientists; I have met with NGOs who are working to protect a large piece of ocean in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean; and I have discussed the value of engaging Maldives resorts in marine conservation.

We’ve made great progress in the past five years on the science of MPAs – we know how to conduct the research and how to assess whether long-term MPAs are performing. Yet there are still many challenges ahead of us in MPA management. Should we prioritize capacity building among stakeholders and improving governance systems? And, how do we effectively translate the latest MPA science into management? I find hope in the diversity of minds exploring these challenges in Marseille, and look forward to the advancement of resiliency in MPAs around the world. But one thing is for sure: there will still be plenty to discuss at the next International MPA Congress.

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