In an Era of Climate Change, How Can Managers Ensure that Today's MPAs Remain Relevant Over Time?

MPA News

The oceans offer increasing evidence that global climate change is underway. Sea surface temperature is rising, while polar sea-ice is retreating. Coral reefs are suffering from severe bleaching events. Amid these and other phenomena - as well as the growing number of disturbing scientific forecasts on the effects of climate change on marine systems - MPA practitioners may feel somewhat helpless. Already faced with the day-to-day challenges of MPA management, many practitioners are simply not addressing the long-term issue of climate change in a focused, meaningful way.

The ultimate answer to the climate-change challenge is, of course, beyond MPA managers' control: that is, a global commitment to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But even if drastic reductions were made right now, it is still likely that climate change would continue through this century before finally reversing course, according to forecasters. For MPA managers to ignore the problem in the meantime will not make it disappear.

By taking a proactive approach to the challenge of climate change, MPA practitioners can best ensure that their sites may withstand change over time. This month, MPA News posed a question to several experts:

In the coming decades, global climate change could have significant impacts on the oceans: sea surface warming, coral bleaching, sea level rise, acidification, pole-ward shifting of habitats, and the possibility of species extinctions. The oceans could look quite different in 50 or 100 years. With this in mind, what can MPA planners and managers do to help ensure that today's MPAs - which are necessary for protecting today's biodiversity - are still relevant half a century from now?

Their responses, below, are in their words. Additional responses - from Rod Salm, Jerker Tamelander, Kristina Gjerde, and Graeme Kelleher - are available on the MPA News website.

Three challenges for MPA managers

Paul Marshall, manager, Climate Change Response Programme, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australia. E-mail: P.Marshall [at]

Climate change is a serious and imminent threat to marine ecosystems. The ability of MPA management to adapt to climate change will be critical to the future of these systems, including the social and economic services that they provide.

There are at least three key challenges that need to be met if MPAs are to be still relevant half a century from now.

First, climate change acts cumulatively and synergistically to increase risk of damage and decrease recovery potential, making it even more difficult for MPAs to achieve their current goals. This risk will increase with the rate and extent of climate change. MPA management must accommodate this new reality by actively supporting climate change mitigation efforts through awareness raising and advocacy. Managers also will need to increase the effectiveness of efforts to manage activities and stresses that could exacerbate the impacts of climate change, such as water quality, fishing, and habitat damage. These efforts must extend beyond MPA boundaries.

Second, climate change will result in further degradation to marine ecosystems in the course of this century, making sites that are naturally resistant to climate-related stresses increasingly valuable to ecosystem resilience. These refugia, especially if they have the potential to be sources of propagules for recovery of damaged areas, will warrant especially effective management to protect them from other threats.

Third, MPA management needs to be adapted to explicitly accommodate the inherent, and increasingly variable, dynamic of marine ecosystems. Climate change alters the disturbance regime for natural systems, increasing the imperative for management goals to focus on process (e.g., recruitment success, algal removal rates) in addition to state (e.g., coral abundance, density of fish).

Climate change is resulting in unprecedented pressures on marine ecosystems and their management. It also has the potential to make MPAs more relevant than ever, if MPA managers can adapt to the challenge of climate change.

MPAs as observatories of change

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, coordinator, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas - Marine, Mediterranean Group, Italy. E-mail: disciara [at]

We are asked to think globally and act locally. But when it comes to climate change, there is not much that MPA practitioners might feel they can do to address the problem from within the boundaries (often very limited) of the areas of their remit. However, considering that climate change is caused by human actions, and that human actions are affected by policy, MPAs are privileged observatories from where natural phenomena related to change can be observed, studied, and communicated to policymakers, to the media, and to the wider public. Protected areas can thus act as tools to drive policy change, and can contribute to slowing down and eventually reversing the problem at its origin. Monitoring is an integral part of management, and in the vast oceans' expanses it is within MPAs that regular monitoring is most likely to take place.

Years ago, oblivious to the raging human controversy on whether climate was changing or not, thermophilic fishes in the Mediterranean had already started their northward expansion, which was first spotted from within MPAs. A large international protected area for cetaceans established in the NW Mediterranean, known as the Pelagos Sanctuary, was built around a permanent front that supports large amounts of northern krill. Should climate change significantly affect krill numbers, this will in turn cause population changes in the cetaceans that occur there to feed. Having a specially protected area for cetaceans on-site is the best guarantee that someone will notice and blow the whistle.

Species translocation, dynamic reserves

Russ Babcock, biologist, CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Australia. E-mail: russ.babcock [at]

In a world in which climate is rapidly changing, and where species distributions are likely to change as well, there is more need than ever for a truly global network of reserves to make these movements possible. A global network of reserves would need to be based on connectivity at both the level of adults and propagules. Where species are unable to cope with change rapidly enough, they may need to be translocated. This poses huge scientific and ethical questions (i.e., Will we just make things worse?). The science needed to underpin this network is highly challenging and will need to be undertaken at a massive scale to better understand movement patterns of organisms in natural and unnatural conditions, as well as the ways in which currents affect their dispersal. Reserve networks need to be set up in such a way that they can best act as appropriate stepping stones. Decisions on their location may also be informed by downscaled global climate models that will help predict local responses of the ocean in terms of temperature, currents, wind, upwellings, and coastal factors such as waves and terrestrial runoff.

Dynamic reserves, shifting with climate at an appropriate rate, may need to be part of the solution. As sea level rises, the shape of the coastline will change, creating new habitats, and impact on current environmental quality in both negative and positive ways. We must know how these processes will affect reserves. With rising sea levels there will be a massive panic to armor coastlines and preserve real estate. Reserves can also provide a mechanism to try and preserve our natural coastlines. This may require a re-thinking of the land/sea interface in terms of what we mean by a marine reserve.

Integrating marine and coastal protected areas

Tundi Agardy, executive director, Sound Seas, USA. E-mail: tundiagardy [at]

I do not believe we can be proactive enough to think about futuristic plans that involve anticipating a climate-changed environment and siting MPAs in areas that may be important to protect in the future. This is partly because our predictive capability is quite small; partly because our understanding of resilience is still quite limited; and partly because I cannot imagine generating the necessary political will to protect anything but those areas screaming for protection today.

However, I do think the realities of climate change and its potential to significantly change marine ecosystems really underscore the need for MPA planners to do a much better job of thinking about the land/sea interface, and working with land-use planners to design MPA networks that fully span marine, riverine, and coastal land areas in highly strategic ways. Design of such integrated networks would allow greater flexibility for adaptive management as sea levels rise. It would also allow coastal managers to better address heretofore underemphasized issues of land-based sources of pollution and the conservation of estuarine nursery areas and other significant habitats throughout watersheds.

In addition, the prospect of severe climate change behooves us to do a much better job of managing the MPAs we already have. There is little question that healthier ecosystems are better able to withstand the stresses caused by warming, rapid sea-level rise, changes in precipitation patterns and pollutant loading, and altered chemical composition.

Managing for ecological resilience

Lizzie Mcleod, co-author (with Rod Salm), Managing Mangroves for Resilience to Climate Change (, USA. E-mail: emcleod [at]

MPA planners can take direct actions to address climate change threats, specifically coral bleaching. At The Nature Conservancy, our core strategy to address climate change in tropical seas is to design networks of marine protected areas that are resilient to change. Key approaches include mitigating human impacts on reefs (e.g., pollution, sedimentation, destructive fishing) because healthy reefs are better able to respond to climate stress. Further, controlling land-based sedimentation and other sources of pollution are important mechanisms to help maintain water quality and reef health. MPA planners need to link with land-use planners and ICM programs to address land-based impacts.

MPA planners and managers can incorporate representative samples of the full range of habitat types into MPA design. These habitat types can be replicated to spread the risk of losing any one type from a disturbance. Managers can monitor herbivores that control macroalgae and manage fisheries to maintain optimal conditions for coral settlement on reefs where algae can outcompete the coral larvae for settlement space. Managers can also identify and fully protect coral communities that are resilient to climate change impacts. Finally, they can develop flexible MPA management strategies and boundaries to enable adaptation of MPA design and management to accommodate altering conditions caused by climate change.

Managing for social resilience

Heidi Schuttenberg, co-author (with Paul Marshall), A Reef Manager's Guide to Coral Bleaching ( E-mail: heidi.schuttenberg [at]

Managing for ecological and social resilience recognizes that a process of uncertain change is underway, and aims to support the ability of the environment and dependent human communities to absorb shocks, regenerate, and reorganize so as to maintain key functions and processes. Rather than having a goal of maintaining circumstances as they are today, managing for resilience emphasizes protecting the factors that allow recovery after disturbance events. Additionally, this strategy recognizes that the future may be determined by unexpected changes, and it values the ability to be responsive to surprises.

On the social side, actions can be taken to support the human communities that depend on marine environments, such as fishers and tourism operators. Changes in resource condition are likely to cause changes in resource use patterns. Engaging with stakeholders during this reorganization will allow managers to build alliances, knowledge, and influence that can assist in effectively adapting management regimes to the new circumstances. Managers and resource users may wish to develop a climate change action plan that could include strategies for supporting ecological resilience, diversifying economic activities, enhancing human resource skills, making investments in capital and technology, or reworking related government policies. As climate change makes life less predictable, such cooperative, adaptive approaches may be essential to achieving responsive, effective MPA planning and management.

Factors allowing for resistance to climate change

Tim McClanahan, biologist, Wildlife Conservation Society, Kenya. E-mail: tmcclanahan [at]

The question is, what factors are likely to give sites the ability to resist climate change? In nearshore areas, these are moderately high background temperature and light variation, and reduced wind-driven water flow. These factors allow organisms to acclimate such that rare disturbances are not beyond their limits to acclimation. There are some areas where oceanographic factors result in sites that are not experiencing increases in water temperature, and these include some permanent (not seasonal) upwelling or high equatorial current-speed areas.

Canada's strategy for MPA planning amid change

Doug Yurick, chief, Marine Program Unit, Parks Canada. E-mail: Doug.Yurick [at]

As one among several nations that have established comparatively few MPAs to date, a more relevant question for Canada is how climate change should be factored into its planning for an expanding MPA network. The need to exercise this opportunity is underscored by Canada's geographic setting as a mid- to high-latitude nation where climate change is already having noticeable effects, particularly in the Arctic. Rapid, on-going changes in the extent and seasonal duration of Arctic sea ice have been well-documented, and predictive models point to acceleration of these trends. Such climate-induced changes will affect not only the natural variability of marine ecosystems, including pole-ward range shifts for example, but the nature and extent of human uses of these northern waters as well. Therefore, planning a network of MPAs requires consideration of both the biogeographic and socio-economic changes that may impinge on marine biodiversity.

Such considerations are being taken into account. As a member of the Arctic Council that links all nations bordering on the Arctic Ocean, Canada is a participant in the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan ( that includes the establishment of MPAs in the Arctic Ocean among shared objectives. Domestically, under Canada's Federal Marine Protected Areas Strategy (, the three federal MPA agencies are developing a collaborative approach to MPA network design - one that will blend their distinct mandates, and those of provincial and territorial governments, to achieve an effective network of MPAs. This network will embrace the protection of biodiversity "hotspots" and critical yet separated life-stage habitats, especially those of keystone species. Other components will achieve broad representation of biodiversity within MPA boundaries, and replication and connectivity (particularly north-south) across the network will be objectives as a safeguard against climate change. Equally important, effective planning and management of this network will require integration into broad oceans management; monitoring programs to detect, assess and respond adaptively to change; and an expanded program to develop and sustain public awareness.

MPAs as showcases for sustainable living

Sibylle Riedmiller (project director) and Eleanor Carter (former project manager), Chumbe Island Coral Park Ltd., Zanzibar. E-mail: sibylle [at] and eleanor.carter [at]

MPAs need to spearhead discussions and management of climate change locally, including through eco-technology and awareness raising. While tropical MPAs are typically located in areas that contribute few if any emissions causing climate change, their visitors often come from countries that are the main "culprits" - the US and Europe in particular. Therefore, to increase the political constituency for lifestyle change there, MPAs should actively promote environmental awareness among visitors, with on-site showcasing of eco-technology (renewable energy, waste, and water management) as well as exhibits of any visible damage or trends from climate change, based on monitoring findings. Our experiences with guests on Chumbe Island are that they are amazed how "simple" zero-emission guest facilities can be, without sacrificing comfort and beauty. MPAs should also offer environmental education for local governments and people, who often aspire to having energy-wasting "consumerist" lifestyles.

Be open to a variety of management options

Nik Lopoukhine, chair, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Canada. E-mail: nik.lopoukhine [at]

We should be open to a variety of options as we plan for the future. With such an approach, we can expect that at least some solutions will prove to be more successful than others.

First, our existing protected areas may be vulnerable to change, and I would suggest that efforts on expanding existing MPAs would be a good start. We need many more marine protected areas than our current dismal numbers.

As we focus on increasing the number of MPAs, we have an opportunity to address potential change. Our approach to conservation planning needs to take into account the best predictions of change and focus on possible implications of climate change. It would be beneficial to create MPAs that anticipate future biodiversity concentrations, as caused by shifts in ocean currents, upwellings, or estuaries. We need to envision the implications of rising sea levels on salt marshes and try to capture as many of the newly created marine life nurseries as possible.

How do we do this? A critical step is to continue to invest in the modeling of change and shifts in biodiversity. In parallel, we must remain committed to convincing fisheries authorities that MPAs are a necessity for the future of their industry. Likewise, fishers and local communities dependent on marine life for their livelihoods must be recruited to be the advocates for future MPAs. If there are no drivers beyond the conservation movement, the above planning ideas will be irrelevant musings.

Using MPAs to monitor change

Einar Svendsen, chair, Oceanography Committee, International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). E-mail: einar.svendsen [at]

MPAs cannot by themselves protect against global climate change. However, it might be an idea to monitor the effect of global warming by ruling out anthropogenic effects through the use of MPAs. If so, MPAs need to be set up in areas where all anthropogenic effects (including long-distance transport of contaminants) are assumed to be negligible. These areas must have a size/scale assumed to be right for studying expected effects (such as species composition, production, and reproduction).

For conservation of fish stocks, it is important to know the fish migration in and out of the MPAs, which may change significantly due to changing climate. If we can anticipate how stocks might change their spawning and/or nursery grounds with respect to climate change, it might be an idea to set up long-term MPAs in today's spawning/nursery grounds and the anticipated spawning/nursery grounds to monitor the transition due to climate.

BOX: Recent publications on climate change

Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, October 2006. Produced for the UK government by Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank.

"ITMEMS3 Statement on Coral Reefs and Climate Change", October 2006. Approved by attendees of the Third International Tropical Marine Ecosystems Management Symposium (ITMEMS3), Cozumel, Mexico.

"Dropping pH in the Oceans Causing a Rising Tide of Alarm", November 2006. Authored by Tundi Agardy and published in The W2O Observer newsletter.

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