The prevalence and practice of connectivity in marine conservation planning

Marine protected areas with connectivity criterionAlthough there’s an increasing amount of research on connectivity, this information has not been well integrated into planning marine reserves and protected areas.  The gap between scientists collecting data and managers incorporating connectivity into spatial planning of marine networks remains a roadblock to effective conservation actions.

A new review dramatically highlights this gap between research and application, with a look at the design of hundreds marine protected areas and asking whether they explicitly included connectivity as part of their planning.  The numbers are striking. Out of 746 MPAs across 6 global regions, only 11% considered connectivity as an ecological criterion.  Of these 11%, almost three-quarters were in either California or Australia.

In addition, there’s a noticeable difference between the management literature, which tends to focus most on landscape connectivity, and the scientific literature, which tends to focus most on demographic and genetic connectivity (and on landscape connectivity the least). How can this disparity between science and practice be closed?

One way is through re-thinking policy measures.  For example, coastal waters generally receive more protection than waters further from shore.  However, the open ocean is connected to and influences coastal communities both in the water and out of it.  A growing body of evidence shows that territorial waters are linked to areas beyond national jurisdiction via both ecological connectivity and ocean circulation connectivity.

What happens in the ocean beyond territorial waters can greatly influence the livelihoods of people living in coastal communities, particularly in developing countries.  Connectivity analysis that is provided to governments and managers can better inform policy decisions to make sure that all marine areas are managed equitably.

No policy on creating marine protected areas is complete without the acknowledgment of the influence of climate change.  When identifying ecologically significant marine areas, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that these areas may shift in location over time due to climate change.

The official designation of these areas, their potential role as refugia, and the extent to which linkages between them should be officially protected, should all be areas of consideration for policy makers.  New modeling techniques that, for example, provide support for scheduling marine protected area establishment, can ensure that the most critical areas are protected first, and connectivity between them remains a high priority.


Balbar, A.C. and Metaxas, A. 2019. The current application of ecological connectivity in the design of marine protected areas. Global Ecology and Conservation. DOI: 10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00569.

Johnson, D.E. and Kenchington, E.L. 2019. Should potential for climate change refugia be mainstreamed into the criteria for describing EBSAs?. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12634.

Kininmonth, S., Weeks, R., Abesamis, R.A., Bernardo, L.P.C., Beger, M., Treml, E.A., Williamson, D. and Pressey, R.L. 2019. Strategies in scheduling marine protected area establishment in a network system. Ecological Applications. DOI: 10.1002/eap.1820.

Popova, E., Vousden, D., Sauer, W.H., Mohammed, E.Y., Allain, V., Downey-Breedt, N., Fletcher, R., Gjerde, K.M., Halpin, P.N., Kelly, S. and Obura, D., et al. 2019. Ecological connectivity between the areas beyond national jurisdiction and coastal waters: Safeguarding interests of coastal communities in developing countries. Marine Policy 104: 90-102.

2019-03-14T21:22:51-04:00 March 14th, 2019|

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 over 10 years studying corridors and rare butterflies in North Carolina.