Social-Ecological Assessment of Conservation

The true meaning of “success”: Developing adaptive social-ecological frameworks for marine protected area evaluation

NSF SEES Fellowship project, 2014-2017.

In the conservation of coastal resources, it is of ethical and practical importance that both ecological and social objectives must be achieved such that the protection of ecosystems does not compromise the well-being of human communities.  These objectives range from the conservation of biodiversity, protecting species of concern, and replenishing fish stocks, to securing or improving food security, livelihoods, well-being, and human rights.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are considered a major conservation solution, with the Convention on Biological Diversity stating a goal for protecting 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.  Currently, around 2% of the world’s marine areas are in MPAs ( – however, we don’t actually know how effectively that 2% is being protected.  Many MPAs suffer from ineffective enforcement due to lack of funding and personnel, conflict with communities who depend on the protected resources, and ineffective governance. Additionally, MPAs generally tend to be established with ecological objectives at the forefront, such that social objectives are often merely an afterthought.

Clearly, additional approaches for protecting marine areas are needed to supplement marginally effective and ecologically-focused MPAs.  For example, Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs), which might well included MPAs, are those areas managed with the community’s interests at heart.  LMMAs are established by communities to reach objectives that the community agrees would be beneficial, and might include protection of a particularly valuable fisheries resource without special attention paid to wider biodiversity protection.  This approach can still allow for sustainable use of resources and for improved well-being of the human community.  It also might, in some cases, function as a “foot in the door” to encouraging communities to adapt additional measures for wider ecological objectives once they observe the effectiveness of LMMAs at reaching specific goals.

So, the essential question of this project is: How “successful” are MPAs, LMMAs, other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), and other approaches to marine resource stewardship at meeting various social and ecological conservation objectives?  Nested within that question is the additional line of inquiry: How can “success” be measured for these various objectives?

Key elements of this project include:

  • Focus on the inputs that go into the establishment of MPAs, LMMAs, and OECMs
  • Assessing informal and alternative stewardship approaches and the potential contributions of small-scale fisheries to resource conservation
  • Incorporating measures of adaptability, resilience, and long-term sustainability
  • Developing tools to streamline conservation evaluation in the field
  • Linking to three major online information systems: MPAtlas, dataMares, and the Information System for Small-scale Fisheries

Mentors: Dr. Octavio Aburto (CMBC and SIO) and Dr. Ratana Chuenpagdee (Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s).

Main collaborators: (more to come!)