New tools and models for social and ecological analyses of MPAs – IMCC 2011

The 2nd International Marine Conservation Congress – “Making Marine Science Matter” (IMCC 2011;, sponsored by the Society for Conservation Biology Marine Section ( on 14-18 May 2011 at the University of Victoria (Victoria, Canada), provided an exciting opportunity for scientists and experts worldwide to share their knowledge on marine conservation. It also gave us the opportunity to identify the current trends, gaps and information needed to better management and conservation strategies. Topics that have been discussed in the past, such as sustainable fisheries, the effect of climate change, and the efficacy of marine protected areas, were contemplated upon once again.  Interestingly, this year’s IMCC explored other issues that highlighted the importance of incorporating a historical perspective when assessing the state of the marine environment and the need to communicate to key audiences about marine conservation.

Technological advances for socioeconomic analyses of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Throughout the conference, special emphasis was made on the social aspects that significantly influence management and planning strategies. Several experts presented marine environmental assessments that incorporated these components with the help of recent technological advancements. For example, a new version of the widely-used MARXAN software for managers, MARXAN with Zones (developed by Matt Watts, Ian Bell, and Hugh Possingham at the University of Queensland, Australia; index.html?page=77654), was designed to enhance the previous features of the previous version, and provides “alternative multiple-use zoning options in geographical regions for marine conservation”. Another software, Marine InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs;, was recently developed by the Natural Capital Project as an ArcGIS-based tool for mapping, and modeling coastal and marine ecosystem services that can: (1) illustrate the cost and benefits of resource management; (2) assess changes in renewable energy based on ocean waves; (3) determine which coastal habitats can serve as buffers for storm waves; and (4) create relevant scenarios that can provide better alternatives to management strategies. Resource managers and scientists alike will benefit from these advancements in software, which provide more information and enhanced tools to make better informed decisions regarding marine and coastal spatial planning.

Video – Marine InVEST training at the IMCC 2011

An innovative decision framework, known as Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEA), is currently being used to better spatial planning, scientific information and management of marine ecosystems. Presently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States encourages the use of IEAs to support an ecosystem approach to management (EAM) strategy ( This approach includes a formal synthesis and quantitative analysis of information about natural and socioeconomic factors associated with specific ecosystem management goals. With the help of this approach, several studies have incorporated local knowledge from small-scale fishing activities using geographic information system (GIS) as a tool to help build a useful source of information.

Although several methodologies have been used efficiently to assess the condition of MPAs, the “Ecological Scorecard” approach initiated by the North American Marine Protected Areas Network ( is pleasantly surprising. Consisting of 14 questions divided into three categories (Water Quality, Habitats, and Living Marine Resources), it is capable of assessing the “current ecological status of an MPA in understandable terms from assigning expert judgment value scales” (IMCC2011, Full Program, p. 62) that can be used to take specific actions needed to improve the “value judgment” over a certain period of time (about 5 years). By incorporating current monitoring data, another Scorecard can be later developed. When assessing MPAs, it is important to understand the social values of these areas. With this in mind, several yearly assessments have taken into account the comments made by key stakeholder groups to help identify changes in resource use, perceptions and attitudes towards MPAs.

Tools for Habitat and Ecological Models in Ecosystem-based Management

Current approaches to planning strategies that include ocean utilization patterns are focusing on protecting critical habitats, such as deep-sea corals and sponge beds, to avoid conflicts between ecosystem management and energy development (e.g., use of tides and waves).  However, information concerning seafloor habitats is either scant or of poor quality, especially for deep water coral ecosystems. With this in mind, the use of one-person submersibles to explore areas that have been identified as consisting of corals and commercially-important fish species is currently underway and is of great interest to local stakeholders. Meanwhile, spatially-explicit models are being developed to generate maps that identify potential areas of conflict for management.

One of the most ambitious approaches to resilience and ecosystem-based management (EBM) was presented by a group that supported the establishment of Gwaii Haanas in 2010, Canada’s first National Marine Conservation Area. Three collaborative research projects are currently underway, which include an integrated “contemporary quantitative ecology with traditional knowledge and archaeological data to reveal the long-term dynamics of these social-ecological systems, inform their conservation, and sustain the adaptive capacity of coastal communities.” (IMCC2011, Full Program, p. 75) The latest version of the Reef Resilience (R2) Toolkit (, developed by The Nature Conservancy, was also presented as an excellent tool that provides a guideline for managers of coral reefs and MPAs on how to build resilience in their local communities. To predict reef resilience, several studies have applied reef resilience factors with multivariate analysis to determine which indicators are the most useful.

Regarding ecological monitoring of MPAs, Hypoxia Online (IMCC2011, Full Program, p. 153) was presented as an innovative tool to assess the rapid decrease of dissolved oxygen in coastal and estuarine areas due to human activities and climate change. This technique involves analyzing photo transects for community composition, species behavior and sediment characteristics. The model CORSET (Coral Reef Scenario Evaluation Tool; is another great online tool for predicting future responses of reef ecosystems to multiple threats and for evaluating the effectiveness of alternative management strategies. The emphasis remains that there is a need for the effective protection of marine benthic habitats, which are difficult to define and identify in well sampled areas. Therefore, the challenge for resource managers and researchers is to discover general patterns that could be applied to habitats that are currently unidentified and lack sufficient data.


“Blue Carbon” Payments and Conservation Agreements

The use of monetary payments for “blue carbon – carbon that is captured and stored by coastal wetlands or is converted to avoid emissions” – was presented as a practical method to help improve policy changes that favor the protection of coastal habitats, such as mangrove and seagrass beds (IMCC2011, Full Program, p. 87). By defining economic values in terms of blue carbon, payments for ecosystem services may be established for those marine environments that are considered economically viable. A “contract-theoretic model for conservation agreements” (IMCC2011, Full Program, p. 87) was also presented, which characterizes the efforts made by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local communities for marine conservation in terms of cost and availability of funds. Conservation agreements may provide ecosystem services, particularly for biodiversity protection, that prevent certain areas from being further exposed to incompatible activities. These agreements may also help to change local user’s habits, making their activities more compatible and sustainable for marine ecosystems.

Efforts for Public Awareness and Outreach

Innovative ideas for public awareness activities and outreach efforts were also an essential part of the IMCC’s theme. For example, REDMAP is a web-based database and mapping facility ( that allows the public to submit data (photos and sightings) of different marine species that are uncommon along the Tasmanian coast or other coastal zones. This database is an excellent example of obtaining valuable information from researchers, communities, and stakeholders to increase data availability and public awareness. Contributions made by recreational divers, referred to as potential citizen scientists by several experts, serve as an important source of data and may help evaluate the relative success of management strategies. The development of science blogs (e.g., was also shown as an effective way for scientists to create public awareness and to promote marine science education. A more modern twist to public awareness and outreach efforts is the use of music to educate local communities, promote public consciousness and attract sponsorships for marine conservation.

Written by: Daniel Matos Molina, Graduate student, UPRM-Department of Marine Sciences

Edited by: J. Seda, CRA Project Assistant


Second IMCC 2011. Full program.

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