Modelling marine protected areas: Insights and hurdles

Elizabeth A. Fulton, Nicholas J. Bax, Rodrigo H. Bustamante, Jeffrey M. Dambacher, Catherine Dichmont, Piers K. Dunstan, Keith R. Hayes, Alistair J. Hobday, Roland Pitcher, Éva E. Plagányi, André E. Punt, Marie Savina-Rolland, Anthony D.M. Smith, David C. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


Models provide useful insights into conservation and resource management issues and solutions. Their use to date has highlighted conditions under which no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) may help us to achieve the goals of ecosystem-based management by reducing pressures, and where they might fail to achieve desired goals. For example, static reserve designs are unlikely to achieve desired objectives when applied to mobile species or when compromised by climate-related ecosystem restructuring and range shifts. Modelling tools allow planners to explore a range of options, such as basing MPAs on the presence of dynamic oceanic features, and to evaluate the potential future impacts of alternative interventions compared with ‘noaction’ counterfactuals, under a range of environmental and development scenarios. The modelling environment allows the analyst to test if indicators and management strategies are robust to uncertainties in how the ecosystem (and the broader human-ecosystem combination) operates, including the direct and indirect ecological effects of protection. Moreover, modelling results can be presented at multiple spatial and temporal scales, and relative to ecological, economic and social objectives. This helps to reveal potential ‘surprises’, such as regime shifts, trophic cascades and bottlenecks in human responses. Using illustrative examples, this paper briefly covers the history of the use of simulation models for evaluating MPA options, and discusses their utility and limitations for informing protected area management in the marine realm.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1681
StatePublished - Oct 12 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Counterfactual
  • MPA
  • Modelling
  • Spatial management


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