How can marine protected area networks be better designed?


Although recent research has evaluated the success of connectivity in terrestrial protected areas, less is known about connectivity in marine protected areas.  Aichi Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity states a goal of 10% of coastal and marine areas conserved by 2020 (compared to 17% for terrestrial and inland water areas).  Keeping these protected area networks connected will require a focused effort, particularly in light of warming oceans due to climate change.

Three new studies address the challenges in creating well-designed and well-connected marine protected areas:

Ocean warming can disrupt connectivity between marine protected areas by limiting larval dispersal distance via shortened development times.  A new framework integrates graph theory and changes in larval connectivity for designing marine reserve networks, given socioeconomic constraints.

The Midriff Islands Region (Región de las Grandes Islas) in the northern Gulf of California, Mexico provides a case study showing that connectivity patterns can change with projected ocean warming.  Future networks of marine protected areas may need more and/or larger reserves to maintain connectivity.


Area-based metrics are not always the best judge for the effectiveness of a marine protected area.  New research shifts the focus away from considering only total area protected and toward eight metrics that focus on trends in size class, connectivity, biodiversity and management effectiveness.

These indicators show that Australia, which has the largest marine protected area network in the world, is well-structured and represents a wide range of protected area types.  However, it would benefit greatly from designating more no-take areas that are well-enforced.


Several elements go into designing well-connected marine protected areas, including spatial distribution of the priority species or habitat, movement patterns of both adult and larval stages, and oceanographic processes.

A new decision tree incorporates information on larval dispersal and juvenile and adult movement that can inform planners on size and spacing of individual protected areas in a network.  It can be used when there is a paucity of biological information, or as a complement to other decision-making tools for marine regions.

Case studies of individual species from the Scotian Shelf on the Atlantic Coast of Canada provide examples of how the decision tree works.


Álvarez‐Romero, J.G., A. Munguía‐Vega, M. Beger, M. del Mar Mancha‐Cisneros, A. N. Suárez‐Castillo, G. C. Gurney, R. L. Pressey, L. R. Gerber, H. N. Morzaria‐Luna, H. N. Reyes‐Bonilla, V. M. Adams, M. Kolb, E. M. Graham, J. VanDerWal, A. Castillo-López, G. Hinojosa-Arango, D. Petatán-Ramírez, M. Moreno-Baez, C. R. Godínez-Reyes, and J. Torre. 2018. Designing connected marine reserves in the face of global warming. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13989.

Roberts, K. E., R. S. Valkan, and C. N. Cook. 2018. Measuring progress in marine protection: a new set of metrics to evaluate the strength of marine protected area networks. Biological Conservation 219: 20-27.

Smith, J. and A. Metaxas. 2018. A decision tree that can address connectivity in the design of Marine Protected Area Networks (MPAn). Marine Policy 88: 269-278.

2018-01-30T15:21:59-04:00 January 30th, 2018|

About the Author:

Heather Cayton
Heather Cayton is the Managing Director of and a Research Assistant at Michigan State University. She received her B.S. from the University of Virginia and her M.S. from Virginia Tech, and has spent the past nine years studying corridors and rare butterflies in North Carolina.