New book analyzes two sides of the marine reserve debate: ‘nature protectionists’ vs. ‘social conservationists’

MPA News

A new book on the science and advocacy of MPAs examines the rise of no-take marine reserves as a popular tool on the marine conservation agenda over the past 20 years, and how that political ascent occurred, including through papers in scientific journals. The book, The Controversy over Marine Protected Areas: Science Meets Policy, analyzes what it describes as the two sides of marine reserve politics: "nature protectionists" (NPs), who argue for an extensive network of no-take areas, and "social conservationists" (SCs), who argue for conventional fisheries management complemented by certain spatial restrictions to protect spawning areas of target fish or biodiversity.

The book suggests that the NP side wields significant political power, with influential scientific papers and the backing of large advocacy organizations. MPA News asked lead author Alex Caveen of Seafish (, an administrative body that supports the UK seafood industry, about this. (The book is based on Caveen's work as a doctoral student at Newcastle University [UK] - he received his Ph.D. in 2013.)

MPA News: Alex, your book suggests the NP side is fairly powerful politically. Yet less than 2% of the global ocean is in no-take marine reserves. In light of that, how powerful can the NP side really be?

Alex Caveen: It's an important question. Certainly you would expect that if the NP had actual power it would be reflected in more of the global ocean being designated as marine reserves (MRs). Arguably, you could say SCs still hold the upper hand in the debate as policy-makers will typically prioritize social needs (e.g., employment) over protection of the environment.

One of the arguments we were trying to make in the book was highlighting the transfixion of the scientific community on marine reserves, and the ethics of scientists becoming drawn into advocacy. The NPs seem to have misleadingly represented MRs as panaceas, often framing the debate between NPs and SCs as one that can be resolved empirically, and viewing politics rather disparagingly. However, politics fundamentally means compromise in achieving one's goals. There has to be understanding on both NP and SC sides to accommodate each other's viewpoints, as well as thinking how best these could be reconciled through different types of spatial management, which could range from marine reserves to multiple-use MPAs.

No doubt some NPs view percentage targets of ocean to be fully protected necessary to create political momentum for their objectives. Debate however becomes confusing when NPs start suggesting that such targets have a scientific underpinning. Taking this latter stance ignores recent evidence that human activities in the seas tend to be much more clustered, with significant amounts of sea actually not being used. Here is the dilemma facing the NP community: do you establish an MR in an area of sea that is actually not used, or do you establish an MR in an area that is used and thereby cause displacement of the human activity onto a site that was previously unused? Of course the answer to this depends on 1) your objective for protection, and 2) the availability of local information to ensure a high likelihood of meeting your objective. As we suggest in the book, lack of clear planning objectives and the availability of robust local information often compromise this analytical approach to site designation.

Dogmatic adherence to percentage targets can also be counter-productive because they incentivize meaningless decisions to meet targets, often leading to expedient decision-making rather than encouraging meaningful dialogue over the impacts of different types of human pressure on marine ecosystems, and how these risks can essentially be better managed. Window-dressing MRs/MPAs as panaceas also detracts from more fundamental problems in fisheries management such as lack of enforcement and IUU fishing.

For more information:

Alex Caveen, Seafish, UK. Email: Alex.Caveen [at]

Alex Caveen's co-authors on the book were Nick Polunin, Tim Gray, and Selina Marguerite Stead, all of Newcastle University in the UK.

The eBook version of The Controversy over Marine Protected Areas is available for £34.99 (US $54) at


This book argues that nature preservationists are inappropriately advocating no-take MPAs as panaceas for addressing human pressures on marine ecosystems. However, most scientists have long accepted that there are no panaceas, in that we need no-take MPAs, restricted-use MPAs and conventional fisheries management approaches, all within a wider-scale ecosystem-based marine spatial planning framework. As such, this book takes us back to the polarized debates previously analysed in the paper - Arguments for conventional fisheries management and against no-take MPAs: only half the story? (Jones 2007 Open Access [1]). The two sides to this story are more recently discussed in my book Governing Marine Protected Areas [2], in the section - Divergent views and the quest for common ground (Jones 2015, pp. 46-55 [2]), which notes that:-

"These contrasting perspectives between fisheries scientists and marine ecologists indicate that this common ground is being eroded by the eddying currents of these different views as fast as it is being established. Given that it is unlikely to be consolidated in the near future, scientific consensus on the need for extensive networks of no-take MPAs seems likely to remain elusive"

:- before going on to discuss how we can find a way forward, recognizing that we need combinations of approaches that reflect the wide diversity of ethical views that different people have. Let us, indeed, move forward, recognizing that there are no panaceas and that we need no-take MPAs, restricted-use MPAs and conventional fisheries management approaches (evolving towards ecosystem-based fisheries management), rather than going back to such falsely dichotomized and unnecessarily entrenched arguments, and re-tellings of only half the story. 

[1] Jones P.J.S. (2007) Point of View - Arguments for conventional fisheries management and against no-take marine protected areas: only half of the story? Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 17(1), 31-43. Open Access

[2] Jones P.J.S. (2014) Governing Marine Protected Areas - resilience through diversity. Earthscan/Routledge. See Earthscan site for seven very positive reviews and to use the 20% discount code DC361. Nature have also published a brief review of this book and invited the Comment Assess Governance Structures, based on this book. Also see letter on scale challenges for MPA networks - Living Seas blog - MPA News interview - Routledge blog - comprehensive review by Bob Earll

Abstract of Jones (2007)

Recent arguments for conventional fisheries management approaches (CFMAs) and against no-take marine protected areas (NTMPAs) are reviewed, i.e. CFMAs are more effective, density-dependent factors will lead to reduced fish stock production in and around NTMPAs, rights-based approaches in combination with CFMAs will be more effective, and natural refuges from fishing already exist. It is concluded that these are largely valid but only from a fisheries management perspective. The arguments of proponents of NTMPAs and those of proponents of CFMAs are considered as contrasting storylines, the divergences between which are based on two key factors: different objectives and different science. In relation to different objectives, it is concluded that the arguments against NTMPAs based on their lack of fisheries management benefits must be considered as only applying to the secondary resource conservation objectives of such designations and not to the primary marine biodiversity conservation objectives. On this basis it is argued that it is counter-productive for NTMPAs to be ‘sold’ on a win-win basis, including their potential to deliver fisheries management benefits, as this detracts from their marine biodiversity conservation objectives and leaves such calls open to arguments that CFMAs are better able to deliver fisheries management objectives. In relation to different science, it is concluded that criticisms of NTMPAs and support for CFMAs implicitly resist the shift from Mode 1 (reductive, intradisciplinary) to Mode 2 (holistic, trans-disciplinary) science that is inherent in calls for NTMPAs as part of an ecosystem approach. Mode 2 science attempts to accommodate both uncertainty and wider societal values and preferences, and it is argued that arguments for NTMPAs should be more explicitly focused on this potential. It is difficult, if not impossible and inappropriate, to extend the reductive approach inherent in CFMA analyses to encompass the broader ethical and scientific concerns for the health of marine ecosystems and their component populations and habitats that arguments for NTMPAs reflect. NTMPA proponents might focus on stressing that arguments against such designations and in favour of CFMAs do not encompass such valid concerns, therefore they tell only half of the story. 

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