MPA Perspective: MPAs in Europe - Challenges and Opportunities

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Editor's note: The authors of the following essay are faculty members of the Department of Ecology and Hydrology at the University of Murcia, Spain. They serve as coordinators of EMPAFISH (, a project funded by the European Commission to study MPAs as tools for fisheries management and conservation.

This article does not necessarily reflect the European Commission's views and in no way anticipates the Commission's future policy in this area.

By José A. García-Charton, Concepción Marcos, Fuensanta Salas, and Ángel Pérez-Ruzafa

The European Symposium on Marine Protected Areas (, held in September 2007 in Murcia, Spain, constituted a unique opportunity to bring together researchers, managers, authorities and industry representatives to discuss the advancement of this management tool to achieve fisheries and conservation goals. Here we intend to present, as coordinators of the EMPAFISH project, and thus co-organizers of this event, our personal view about the most important ideas issued from the meeting, and the challenges faced by MPAs in the near future.

1. Need to integrate fisheries and biodiversity goals

The capacity of the European Common Fisheries Policy alone to solve the problem of fisheries conservation is being called into question. There is an increasing need, particularly in the Mediterranean, for closer collaboration and coordination between environment and fisheries government officials at all administrative levels (from local to European and international). However, fisheries and environmental objectives may not always be completely compatible. For instance, the Natura 2000 network of protected areas - which protect habitats and endangered species - may help indirectly to address fisheries goals through the fishery-habitat importance of particular communities (e.g., Posidonia oceanica beds, cold water corals). But because of its limited scope, the Natura 2000 network can be only complementary at best to other management measures in addressing specific fisheries objectives.

2. Participatory process and community involvement

Public participation is one of the key elements in the success of MPAs. Not only must management establish fluid ways of communicating with and informing stakeholders, but there is a need to implement adaptive and bottom-up management schemes, with involvement of stakeholders in all phases of MPA planning, designation, monitoring and evaluation. For such involvement to be effective, stakeholders must be willing to accept other points of view. In other words, fishers must be willing to agree to close certain areas to fishing; tourism managers to admit to being excluded from some areas for diving or recreational fishing; and scientists to acknowledge pragmatic considerations besides biophysical and socio-economic sciences, such as enforcement needs.

3. Role of science to support MPA process

Science is an essential component to MPA success in (i) setting general and operational objectives, (ii) establishing baseline reference levels, (iii) predicting outcomes of alternative management scenarios, and (iv) properly assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of MPAs in relation to planned goals and objectives. MPAs constitute true scientific experiments at the ecosystem scale, and hence a privileged stage for the advancement of knowledge.

A multidisciplinary approach is the most appealing strategy to move forward in MPA science. Concern is often raised against an excessive emphasis on purely natural sciences (which are reductionist, long-term, and can involve a significant amount of uncertainty) to the detriment of the social sciences. The latter are possibly better-adapted to local realities - i.e., to the need to conserve not only resources but also the living conditions and culture of coastal human communities. Scientists are aware of the current limitations of science in terms of unresolved questions and gaps in knowledge, and recognize the merit in establishing priority operational objectives for the next years. The major obstacle is the gap between unrealistically short timeframes required by donors and managers in the planning process (linked to short-term science-funding schemes), and scientists' inclination to think in the long term. Rapprochement requires managers to plan more in the long term and with more of a precautionary perspective, and scientists to think more in the short term - such as giving answers to managers even without absolute sureness on their conclusions, in the face of urgent situations.

4. The future of the MPA tool

We need to be much more ambitious when stating the goals and objectives of fisheries conservation and biodiversity protection because of the highly degraded state of marine populations and ecosystems. Although many benefits will become apparent soon after protection, full ecosystem recovery will require decades to centuries to occur. In addition, there is the mandate to protect a very significant part of the marine areas within MPA networks - bearing in mind the 2012 target.

Regarding the role of scientific advice in the MPA process, a dichotomy exists between "low-tech and local knowledge-based" vs. "high-tech and high-quality data-based" methodologies. Due to urgency reasons, there is a need to develop the first type of methods to be applied in certain situations, as already done by some international agencies. But, importantly, scientists should improve their capacity to translate the results of MPA research into readily applicable management measures.

Finally, it appears necessary to broaden our thinking to larger geographical scales beyond MPA limits. MPAs offer a smaller-scale model for development of a true Oceans Policy, based on interdisciplinary spatial planning and ecosystem-based management of the littoral areas and the high seas. Such a policy is the only solution to the present fisheries and environmental crises.

For more information

José Antonio García Charton, Departamento de Ecología e Hidrología, Universidad de Murcia, Campus de Espinardo, 30100 Murcia, Spain. Tel: +34 968 364326; E-mail: jcharton [at]