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Aquatic Conserv: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 14: 211–215 (2004)
Published online in Wiley InterScience
( DOI: 10.1002/aqc.621
Reconsidering ‘dangerous targets’ for marine protected areas
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA
History illustrates that marine protected areas (MPAs) can serve many roles, including: maintaining
biodiversity, enhancing resources, protecting species, providing research controls, promoting ecosystem
sustainability, and giving access for ecotourism. This is made evident from MPA origins that date from
centuries ago, at least from the times when Polynesians established sanctuary sites for valued marine life.
During the early part of the 20th century, science provided a major basis for MPA implementation, for
example in the USA by: recognition of land–sea connections by extension of the Everglades National Park
into Florida Bay in 1934; exclusion of fishing at Dry Tortugas in 1935 to establish a control site for
scientific study; and establishment of marine areas within Channel Islands National Monument in 1938 for
seabird conservation.
The four-decade-old ‘modern era’ of MPAs evolved differently, beginning with Resolution No. 15 of the
First World Conference on National Parks (Adams, 1962). Later, an International Conference on Marine
Parks and Reserves (IUCN, 1976) attempted strategy development. These events occurred during rapid
growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the 1960s–1980s, but well before the arousal of the
scientific community to ‘conservation science’ from the mid-1980s onwards. The resulting proliferation of
MPAs, some functional and some not, has given rise to healthy debates on how to proceed, challenging
scientists, conservationists, managers, and policy makers critically to examine what may be the optimal
routes toward further progress.
In sum, MPA establishment was driven, at first, by tradition and pragmatism, then science, followed by
opportunism, serendipity, and Delphic (judgemental, oracular) procedures, and lately with the hope that
MPAs would become predominately science based (Ray, 1999a). Despite the fact that ‘paper parks’ have
often resulted from the recent eager quest for MPAs, it has been clear from the beginning that total
agreement on goals and purposes, certainty of scientific knowledge, and uniform design principles were not
achievable, leaving room for progress on an array of fronts from multiple use, to strict protection for
endangered species, to reserves for fisheries. Also apparent has been that a coherent set of procedures would
be helpful. Suzuki (2003) insightfully proposes that MPAs would benefit from three ‘critical components’: a
global strategy, followed by the authority and accountability to carry it out. He is acutely aware that
*Corresponding author. G. Carleton Ray, University of Virginia, Department of Environmental Sciences, 291 McCormick Road,
PO Box 400 123, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4123, USA. E-mail: [email protected]
Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Received 3 December 2003
Accepted 12 December 2003
successful MPAs also depend on their large-scale ecological and social setting, by stating: ‘A true model of
sustainability will incorporate protection at all scales, from large regions, to landscapes, to individual sites
where development occurs’ and ‘a switch to ecosystem management’.
Agardy et al. (2003) raise the issue of ‘Dangerous Targets? Unresolved issues and ideological clashes
around marine protected areas’, promoting a thesis that has potential to raise doubts in the minds of policymakers and the public, thereby risking constructive progress. They conclude that ‘an ideological divide has
emerged’. However, their ‘divide’ lacks documentation and seems much of their own invention. The
authors rightly disavow the present tendency of a few advocates towards ‘simplistic solutions’, but fail to
avow the opportunities and reasonable information (even good guesses by knowledgeable persons) that can
justify action against the onslaught of human exploitation. Their concerns lie in five questions, all of which
have borne much discussion over the years:1
‘What are MPAs?’ makes clear that semantics may cause confusion and that names can be used as
weapons by opponents, but neglects the cultural, managerial, and historical origins of MPA
nomenclature. The discussion offers no alternatives and ends where it began } that ‘MPA’ is a useful
all-inclusive title.
‘What purpose do MPAs serve?’ rightly states that ‘no model for MPA management will be universally
applicable’. They argue for ‘clearly defined target objectives’, but their discussion lacks analysis of the
cross-purpose that their title suggests. The authors also conclude that scientists should not work ‘in
isolation’, thereby overlooking scientists’ presently intense involvement. In fact, the failure of many
environmental initiatives, including MPAs, does not lie in the science per se nor in the lack of
involvement of scientists, but in a lack of application of scientific findings (Gray, 1999).
‘No-take reserves: are they the only legitimate MPA?’ evidently stems from the authors’ perception of
inflexibility on the part of those who advocate ‘no-take’ fishery reserves. Fishery reserves have been
proposed for decades (e.g. for whales) to help resolve the serious crises of fisheries over-exploitation and
subsequent ecosystem degradation (NRC, 1995). The Scientific Consensus Statement on Marine
Reserves and Protected Areas of the National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, signed by
161 academics in 2001, notes that only 1% of the world’s oceans are protected in reserves and
scientifically substantiates their benefits (see also: Lubchenco et al., 2003). Additionally, Murray et al.
(1999) argue that, ‘establishing networks of no-take reserves is a process-oriented precautionary
management strategy that protects functional attributes of marine ecosystems’. However, neither of
these documents, nor other scientific statements, to my knowledge, doubt the utility of multiple use.
‘Special targets: how much of what and why?’ challenges the ‘20% mantra’ that if 20% of an area is
declared ‘no take’ then the whole area will become more productive. Yet, the authors call for ‘clearly
defined target objectives’ while objecting to this one. The confusion lies in whether targets are stated as
policy, strategy, or tactics. This 20% as flexible policy is far-sighted, but as a rigid tactic it could be
disastrous; that is, if only 20%, what of the rest? Similarly, ‘silver bullet’ tactics for protection of speciesrich ‘hot spots’ (Myers et al., 2000) lose sight of whole ecosystems and fail to account for equally
important ‘cold spots’ (Karieva and Marvier, 2003). Thus, as policy, would the authors argue against a
30% reduction of nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico, or 40% into Chesapeake Bay, as has often been
suggested, to confront anoxic ‘dead zones’?
‘How must we deal with scientific uncertainty?’ reiterates familiar territory for scientists, as well as the
needs to take a precautionary approach and to set realistic targets. As Agardy et al. (2003) point out,
much uncertainty about MPAs remains; but, as they also say, we already have a pretty good idea about
The references in Agardy et al. (2003) omit many significant publications. Of 60 citations, only four predate 1990; 23 contain the
authors’ names and many are grey literature or opinion statements. Note: Salm and Clark (1984) has been revised as Salm RV, Clark
VR, Siirila E. 2000. Marine and Coastal Protected Areas: A Guide for Planners and Managers. Third Edition. IUCN, Washington,
Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Aquatic Conserv: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 14: 211–215 (2004)
the benefits that would accrue from a wide scope of MPAs and the risks of inaction. They conclude that,
‘denying uncertainty is a huge risk we cannot afford to take’, but who exactly is doing the ‘denying’ they
do not say.
The conclusion of Agardy et al. (2003) is a reiteration of the benefits of multiple-use MPAs, with which
the vast majority of MPA proponents already agree. However, their perpetuation of an ‘ideological divide
. . . that threatens to cast a shadow on how MPAs are viewed by society’, provides ammunition for
opponents. Their argument is reminiscent of the legendary debate between Gifford Pinchot (with an assist
from Teddy Roosevelt) and John Muir a century ago about utilitarian (‘wise use’) versus ‘preservationist’
forest management. But in contrast to that debate, their ‘divide’ over MPAs is not substantiated via specific
examples or references, but only vaguely infers that ‘special interest groups’ are promoting ‘one-size-fits-all’
solutions. The authors also remind scientists of their ‘professional and ethical duty to map out those paths
which are most likely to lead to improved understanding of the natural world’, evidently in the belief that
some scientists, whom they chose not to mention, are doing otherwise.
This brings me to matters that might have been discussed. First and foremost, conservationists today are
too often ill-trained in natural science. Dayton (2003) speaks forcefully of ‘environmental crises [that]
coincide with the virtual banishment of natural sciences in academe’. It is a truism that science-based
conservation requires intimate familiarity with natural history. Laboratory experiments, computer
modelling, and hypothesis testing based on simplistic assumptions are no substitutes. Equally vital is
that species’ natural histories must be placed in context of the structure and function of whole systems,
most critically including humans.
Second, the vast majority of MPAs lie in coastal-ocean and inshore waters. This ‘coastal realm’ is where
land- and sea-scapes form a continuum of species natural histories, energetics, and exchanges among
terrestrial watersheds and marine seasheds (Ray and McCormick-Ray, 2004). A land–sea systems approach
requires a reorientation of conservation design, wherein linkages set the stage for ecosystem management.
Third, we must be reminded of the 30-year-old ‘biosphere reserve’ concept, which calls for large-scale
multiple-use planning and zoning, motivated by a no-take area as its ‘core’. Agardy et al. (2003) evidently
agree by illustrating (in their figure 1) how multiple-use and no-take approaches can be complementary.
NRC (2001) also supports a biosphere-reserve model by indicating how different levels of protection can be
applied to zones (page 120, figure 6–3). This biosphere reserve paradigm places no-take areas as part of any
MPA, as a hedge against the unknown consequences of exploitation and for providing research control
Fourth, differences among ideologies and approaches originate not so much within science or
management or advocacy, as among the diverse cultures involved in conservation. For example, NGOs are
strongly influenced by public preferences, and pay inordinate attention to charismatic megadiversity (Ray,
1999b), which drives their ability to raise funds. Scientists are dependent on grant-making from government
agencies and foundations, largely removed from the public at large, and held accountable by their
peers. Managers are driven by the mandates handed down to them by political processes, and are the ones
most often caught squarely in the middle and most likely to receive ‘blame’ (often least likely to receive
credit). Policy-makers are unlikely to assume authority or accountability without public forcing, leaving
‘users’ free to go their laissez-faire ways, especially if they perceive lack of unity among the ‘experts’.
Nevertheless, in spite of these differences (always in danger of exaggeration), the major schism is between all
of the above and those industrialists and fishers, whether commercial or recreational, that desire unfettered
Finally, the question of what drives the planning process needs to be faced directly. Underlying MPA
development lies scientific knowledge and consensus building among so-called ‘stakeholders’, a process that
can, and usually does, enlist a mix of public perceptions, Delphic judgements, policy and management
constraints, and uncertainty. Considerable experience has now been gained about such situations.
Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Aquatic Conserv: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 14: 211–215 (2004)
For example, the Channel Islands National Park has long supported a monitoring and assessment program
in support of ecosystem management (Davis et al., 2003), in which abalones (Haliotis spp.) have received
particular attention. Past history indicated that abalone exploitation appeared sustainable and that
conservation and management could proceed accordingly. However, long-term monitoring proved this
conclusion to be incorrect (Davis, 2000). What proved wrong was lack of understanding about the
behaviour of the ecosystem. This example supports the view that ecological principles, monitoring, and
adaptive management must be incorporated from the start, and that some portion of any MPA needs to be
set aside from exploitation as a control centre for learning.
Returning to Suzuki’s (2003) editorial, strategy is clearly key, but must be seen as taking a central role
between policy and tactics. Strategy is derived from military use, providing a framework for action; i.e. ‘. . .
the art of defeating the enemy in the most economical and expeditious manner’ (Morison, 1958). Strategy
follows policy, which involves flexible goal-setting, but does not undertake specific action. Tactics flow from
strategy, and concern the deployment of forces to carry it out. Scientific knowledge can be the underpinning
for all three together, but clarity about which level is being addressed, and for what purpose, is critical. Also
important is the level of ‘proof’ required, and about what. For example, it seems evident that no-take
‘control’ areas are sine qua non for habitat protection and for research that can help determine the effects of
exploitation on species population dynamics and ecosystem functions (Ludwig et al., 1993). Nevertheless, it
is not so obvious how MPAs can conserve biodiversity or enhance fisheries (Willis et al., 2003), despite
seeming self-evident. Here, the uncertainty principle comes into play: that is, the underlying factors
involved in these two cases are different and lack of proof for either does not argue for lack of action for the
MPAs represent a complex mix of cultures, perceptions, and approaches, as well as a modicum of
controversy and confusion. But is this a bad thing? I think not, so long as apparent conflicts are not
inflated; otherwise, our differences have the regrettable potential to be used as ammunition for those who
oppose MPAs, in principle or for selfish purposes. Rather, we need to turn controversy on its head and
identify what is required. Surely, the profile of MPAs needs raising. For a half-century, discussion of
marine conservation has lagged behind that for the land. Relative lack of attention to marine conservation
is as characteristic of science as it is among the wider public (Kochin and Levin, 2003). On the brighter side,
MPAs were a major component of the September 2003 World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, at
which MPAs received a major push forward (see Even so, the future is uncertain. It seems
clear from the congress’s results that more constructive thought needs to be given to how a scientifically
sound and well-managed global MPA network might evolve. In that context, we would do well to heed
Meeker’s (1980) words: ‘An environmental ethic requires that human behaviour be modified to agree with
the ecology of the world, not that the world be rearranged to suit human desires’. Most importantly, as
Suzuki (2003) notes: ‘Recommendations from international . . . conferences are easily ignored’. This is to
say that accountability, although elusive, is spread among all levels and all stakeholders, conservation
proponents, scientists, and policy makers alike. The challenge now is to agree to a range of goals and
mandates and to develop a performance-based strategy for sustainability, recalling that conservation is
without boundaries, and involves all that we humans do.
I wish to thank the following for their support, criticisms, and comments: Gary E. Davis of the National Park Service,
Paul K. Dayton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mark Hixon of Oregon State University, Jerry McCormickRay of the University of Virginia, John C. Ogden of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, and Cheri Recchia of The
Ocean Conservancy. My thanks also to John M. Baxter for many insightful comments and encouragement to write this
Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Aquatic Conserv: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 14: 211–215 (2004)
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