Marine No Take Areas:
Principles of design and operation

Jon Nevill,                                Draft,  September 2004


Humans have regarded the oceans and their inhabitants as almost limitless, and it is only comparatively recently that we have become aware that the oceans have been seriously degraded by human activities. To many this has come as a surprise, but perhaps this is because we refuse to learn the lessons of history.  According to Ludwig et al. 1993: "There are currently many plans for sustainable use or sustainable development that are founded upon scientific information and consensus. Such ideas reflect ignorance of the history of resource exploitation, and misunderstanding of the possibility of achieving scientific consensus concerning resources and the environment. Although there is considerable variation in detail, there is remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation: resources are inevitably overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction."  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the area of overfishing (Jackson et al. 2001).  Lacking a sense of planetary reverence or respect for other life forms (White 1967) we have taken what we wanted from the oceans...

Where large no-take marine protected areas have been established and policed for several years, generally speaking they contain more organisms, and larger organisms than equivalent unprotected areas.  In many cases these differences are dramatic - a clear sign that the surrounding seas are overfished.  These finding have prompted interest in marine reserves as fisheries management tools.

Ludwig's findings, however, have not been generally understood.  Humans continue to believe that the oceans can be managed in a sustainable way, using the knowledge that we now have.  We will, it appears, continue to hold this belief in spite of historical evidence to the contrary - knowing that humans many years before us held the same view, but were proved wrong, over and over again.  But we, apparently, know better...  

Marine No-Take Areas are useful for many reasons (more below).  However, perhaps the most important, and the least discussed, is as insurance against an uncertain future and human frailty - a combination of over-confidence and lack of understanding about the way the world works.  The precautionary principle rests on a history of this aspect of human frailty, and its widespread application to the marine environment is urgent and overdue.  

The creation of marine No-Take Areas must be undertaken partly to provide precautionary benchmarks - substantial areas set aside (as far as possible) from human impact.  Such benchmarks are essential insurance for future generations: they will provide the only yardstick by which our performance in using and safeguarding the oceans can be judged.

This paper aims to assist those who wish to gain a basic understanding of the principles behind the design and operation of no-take marine protected areas, and to provide a short list of key references which will serve those needing more detailed knowledge.


Functions of No Take Areas

The three most significant threats to the marine environment globally are overfishing, habitat degradation through disturbance and pollution, and the ecosystem effects of introduced organisms. Properly managed and resourced No Take Areas can address the first threat, and partially address the second.  The third area is more difficult to address within a the context of spatial reserves.

No Take Areas (NTAs) are a type of marine protected area (MPA).  MPAs can be categorised under the IUCN's six-class protected area system, ranging from Class 1 (fully protected) to Class 6 (multiple use, low level of protection). NTAs are a Class 1 marine protected area.

Essentially, protected areas are created to protect identified values, existing in a specific location, from identified threats – which may be both direct and indirect.  Values can be both qualitative and quantitative.  Where quantitative values exist, they can often be measured by attributes, and assigned levels (eg: high, medium, low). Values - the things we seek to protect by establishing NTAs - include organisms, ecosystems, habitats, and the processes which support both ecosystems and the services they provide. Overall, the value of a particular NTA (or its major components) can be assigned a value level. The simplest, and one of the most common value level frameworks is simply: (a) international significance; (b) national significance; (c) regional significance; and (d) local significance.  

Marine protected areas differ from terrestrial protected areas in one important aspect: the permeability of their boundaries.  Not only are physical borders (fences) impossible to construct, but the movement of tides and ocean currents ensures a considerable degree of organism dispersion, particularly for reproductive propagules.  Equally important are flows of nutrients, organic carbon and energy - which move in and out of a particular area. Conversely, it is often impossible to isolate a protected area from widespread marine pollution, which may originate from adjacent terrestrial catchments.

As is the case in terrestrial and freshwater environments, there are a number of roles that protected areas can play in relation to marine areas.  These relate specifically to the protection of identified values, and include:

*    provision of precautionary benchmark areas, as free as possible from human impact, which allow ecosystems to function in a natural way.  These areas provide scientific reference sites, either for research, or to provide benchmark indicators by which sustainable management in the wider ocean may be judged;

*    at a national level, protection of biodiversity against threatening processes through the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of protected areas containing examples of all major marine ecosystems in relatively undisturbed condition;

*    provision of biodiversity ‘banks’ to recolonise damaged or degraded environments, whether such degradation has occurred by natural disaster, bad long-term management practices (such as overfishing), or by accident (such as a major pollutant spill); Refer to the large body of literature on marine reserves as fisheries management tools: for example Botsford et al. 2003 provide recommended design principles based on dispersal and survival modelling.

*    provision for the conservation of special groups of organisms – for example, species with complex habitat requirements, or mobile or migratory species depending on migratory pathways or migration bottlenecks, or species vulnerable to disturbance and which may depend on reservation for their conservation, or species heavily dependent on particular (possibly threatened) habitats during certain life history stages (spawning aggregations, for example);

*    provision for the special needs of rare, threatened or depleted species, and threatened or unique ecological communities;

*    protection of areas of high conservation value including those containing unusual diversity of habitats, communities or species; rare or threatened geological or geomorphological features; natural refugia for flora and fauna; and centres of species endemism;

*    protection of areas sufficiently large to allow extremely long term processes to take place, such as the evolution of species or seascapes;

*    assistance in the provision of ecosystem services: that is the provision of environments which sustain human life, including clean air and water, atmospheric regulation (such as the absorption of carbon dioxide), nutrient recycling, food, transport, flood mitigation (in estuaries), and the regulation of global weather patterns; 

*    the facilitation - through a process of the identification of natural values, ecosystem condition, and threats - of broad strategic planning processes aimed at the protection biodiversity within the entire seascape; and;

*    within the constraints of the above, provision for the recreational, aesthetic and cultural need of indigenous and non-indigenous people.


Data to support design

1.  Data must be available which relates to the objectives of the NTA program, and the values on which it rests. A core value will usually be biodiversity, and a core objective will be the protection of that biodiversity. Biodiversity is a concept which is sufficiently complex to preclude direct measurement in most instances; however surrogates for biodiversity are easier to obtain.  Reserve network design should be supported by a reliable (if broad scale initially) inventory or map of marine habitat type, and knowledge of the spatial distribution, abundance, and reproductive and dispersal behaviour of both major harvested and unharvested species.  

2.  Knowledge of ecosystem processes - including both physical oceanography and flows of organisms, nutrients, organic carbon and energy - should be assembled and gaps in data identified for future research.  A knowledge of the dispersal processes affecting key organisms is important.  However lack of detailed knowledge should not stand in the way of NTA network design (see discussion of adaptive management below).

3.  Knowledge of catastrophic events affecting the both the coast and adjacent seas should be collected (Allison et al. 2003).

4.  There should be a commitment (including specific budgeting of financial resources) to expand and update both the inventory and biological information as part of the ongoing management of the nation's marine resources, including a specific commitment to monitor the performance of No Take Areas (NTAs).  The collection of NTA baseline data before or immediately after protection is applied is most important (see discussion of phase-in provisions below).

5.  Local and scientific knowledge must be coordinated through local, state and federal agencies.  The goals of the overall NTA establishment process should be decided at the highest political level, with appropriate stakeholder and community involvement, prior to the process of designing the network itself.

6.  A variety of scenarios for meeting the high-level goals should be prepared using best available science prior to the commencement of socio-economic evaluations.  Socio-economic considerations should not influence the preparation of these alternative scenarios.  The theory and process of preparation of the scenarios should be understood by all stakeholders, although not influenced by them.  The preparation of the socio-economic evaluation will be underpinned by stakeholder values and knowledge, and any technical aspects to this evaluation must also be transparent to all stakeholders. Socio-economic costs must be weighed against the expected benefits of creating reserves.  A discussion of enforcement difficulties and costs must be included in the socio-economic assessment.


Systematic conservation planning

The general principles of reserve selection apply to terrestrial, marine and freshwater environments. Margules and Pressey (2000) list six stages in systematic conservation planning:

 Stages in systematic conservation planning:

Systematic conservation planning can be separated into six stages, and some examples of tasks and decisions in each are presented below.  Note that the process is not unidirectional; there will be many feedbacks and reasons for altering decisions.

1. Compile data on the biodiversity of the planning region

Review existing data and decide on which data sets are sufficiently consistent to serve as surrogates for biodiversity across the planning region.  If time allows, collect new data to augment or replace some existing data sets.  Collect information on the localities of species considered to be rare and/or threatened in the region (these are likely to be missed or under-represented in conservation areas selected only on the basis of land classes such as vegetation types).

2. Identify conservation goals for the planning region

Set quantitative conservation targets for species, vegetation types or other features (for example, at least three occurrences of each species, 1,500 ha of each vegetation type, or specific targets tailored to the conservation needs of individual features). Despite inevitable subjectivity in their formulation, the value of such goals is their explicitness.  Set quantitative targets for minimum size, connectivity or other design criteria.  Identify qualitative targets or preferences (for example, as far as possible, new conservation areas should have minimal previous disturbance from grazing or logging).

3. Review existing conservation areas

Measure the extent to which quantitative targets for representation and design have been achieved by existing conservation areas.  Identify the imminence of threat to under-represented features such as species or vegetation types, and the threats posed to areas that will be important in securing satisfactory design targets.

4. Select additional conservation areas

Regard established conservation areas as ‘constraints’ or focal points for the design of an expanded system.

Identify preliminary sets of new conservation areas for consideration as additions to established areas. Options for doing this include reserve selection algorithms or decision-support software to allow stakeholders to design expanded systems that achieve regional conservation goals subject to constraints such as existing reserves, acquisition budgets, or limits on feasible opportunity costs for other land uses.

5. Implement conservation actions

Decide on the most appropriate or feasible form of management to be applied to individual areas (some management approaches will be fallbacks from the preferred option).  If one or more selected areas prove to be unexpectedly degraded or difficult to protect, return to stage 4 and look for alternatives.  Decide on the relative timing of conservation management when resources are insufficient to implement the whole system in the short term (usually).

6. Maintain the required values of conservation areas

Set conservation goals at the level of individual conservation areas (for example, maintain seral habitats for one or more species for which the area is important). Ideally, these goals will acknowledge the particular values of the area in the context of the whole system.  Implement management actions and zonings in and around each area to achieve the goals.  Monitor key indicators that will reflect the success of management actions or zonings in achieving goals. Modify management as required.



Where a nation has a substantial coastline, the planning of marine protected areas may most readily be achieved through a number of regional plans, using regionally-based stakeholder consultation groups.  

The design phase needs to specifically:

1) clearly identify goals, objectives and expectations, both strategically at a national level, then within that strategic framework at a more detailed regional level; 

2) ensure protected areas include comprehensive, adequate and representative examples of all major aquatic ecosystems, including associated terrestrial components (such as bird or seal habitat), and represent a wide variety of environmental conditions (such as differing tidal, current or wave energy conditions); 

3) replicate reserves protecting broad habitat types within each biogeographic region, partly as insurance against catastrophe; 

4) establish fully protected areas of  sufficient size to be: self-sustaining, resilient to edge effects, capable of facilitating evolution.  This requirement should be complemented, where applicable, by reserves having high edge-to-area rations where this is likely to assist in terms of exports to adjacent fisheries;

5) no take areas should form the core of the reserve network; use multiple use marine protected areas to buffer NTAs against edge effects. 

6) consider enforcement issues in choosing between alternative designs.  Consider remoteness, boundary definition and location, perimeter effects, signage, user education issues, and differing mechanisms for compliance monitoring and enforcement. 

For example, in California, a network should include nearshore coast, offshore islands, edges of continental slope, submarine canyons and offshore pinnacles. It should also should include major upwelling cells that occur at approximately every 100 km to aid larval movement for fish and invertebrates. 

Pristine or lightly-used areas are excellent candidates for reserves, but high-use areas adjacent to urban areas may show stronger responses to protection as long as they are also protected from other sources of human disturbance. Multiple reserves, or replication, reduces risk that populations or habitat are destroyed by a catastrophe, assists successful reproduction and is critical for rigorous scientific testing and improved management. Initially, reserves should be based on the best available science and then studied. Current science supports significantly expanding the amount of marine habitat presently in no-take reserves. Proper evaluation is needed, along with adaptive management, that is, adjusting boundaries and regulations based on research results.  


Ongoing management of the reserve network

Certain key aspects to ongoing management are important. Management of the network of marine protected areas should: 

1) phase in programs over a suitable time period.  In some cases the creation of a NTA will disadvantage fishers, both commercial and recreational.  Phase-in programs will allow time for the community to adapt to new restrictions.  This phase in period can also be used to develop information and educational programs relating to the NTA and more generally to marine conservation.  The phase-in period can also be used to establish baseline data on the abundance and size distribution of key species likely to be affected by the later imposition of restrictions.

2) accommodate adaptive management.  Adaptive management has a specific meaning most widely understood through its use in the International Standards Organisation ISO 14,000 series of standards dealing with Environmental Management Systems (EMS). It involves basic planning steps of setting objectives, measuring the achievement of these objectives, and if necessary modifying operations as required in order to achieve the desired outcome.


In the context of managing marine reserves, monitoring outcomes, useage and compliance will all be critical roles.  If necessary, there must be provision for modifying both regulations, management regimes and reserve boundaries.

3) adequate funds and resources must be made available for effective enforcement.  Marine areas are often relatively remote and difficult to police.  In circumstances where the chance of an offender being detected is unlikely, or is perceived as unlikely, an adequate deterrent effect depends on heavy penalties.  The perceived possible cost of offending will be balanced against the slim chance of detection (Kirkwood and Agnew 2004).  Enforcement difficulties will be compounded by many small, irregular or complex boundaries.  Users must be able to establish with reasonable ease whether they are in or out of the NTA.  Prosecutions also depend on reliable evidence.  

4) user information and education programs must be provided.  While protective regulations must be enforceable and must be enforced, ultimately any resource management program will not be successful in the long term without a large degree of community acceptance and support.  Support should be provided for a variety of carefully designed and delivered information and education programs, including programs targeted at fishers (both commercial and recreational), local residents, children and the general community.  Delivery should include signs at marinas and boat ramps.  Community warden schemes, possibly using local volunteers, should also be considered.  




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