The Challenges in Marine Protected Areas

Image: Three Crown-of-Thorns Starfish eating coral


The Catlin Seaview Survey team has completed their third day of surveying the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of the Karimunjawa Islands off the north coast of central Java. Similar to previous shallow reef deployments in Bunaken national park and the entire Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Karimunjawa Islands are an IUCN category II protected area (national park). This means the area is managed and designed for multiple zones that meet the needs of all stakeholders that use the natural environment as a resource, including tourism, fisheries, science and natural resource extraction.  


Terrestrial versus marine protection


Unfortunately the science of MPA management is a long way behind its terrestrial equivalent in terms of area designation, monitoring, patrolling and enforcement. In a terrestrial protected area it is easier to designate space to monitor and prevent harmful entities from entering the area, which could include introduced species and disease, pollutants, and illegal poaching or resource extraction (i.e logging). Our project partners Google have developed an initiative called Google earth engine outreach to identify illegal logging in the amazon from satellite imagery, so authorities can find the activity and put a stop to it as soon as possible before too much damage is done.


The marine environment, especially coral reefs are highly fragmented and variable but depend on the connectivity of ocean currents, winds and movements of species to maintain a healthy balance of the natural marine ecosystem. For this reason it is not possible to simply construct a barrier and designate one small area to prevent harm from entering an MPA. 



Out of sight - out of mind


Being underwater, and in a lot of cases remote makes MPAs costly and time consuming to monitor and patrol. This leaves marine environments in MPAs highly vulnerable to both global and local stressors because it is difficult to immediately examine the effects of a disturbance event. Earlier in the year the Catlin Seaview Survey got to go back to previously surveyed sites that were in the impact zone of Cyclone Ita within the GBRMPA and examine the damage. In this case we knew damage could have occurred because of the obvious destructive winds at the time.


Other disturbances such as mass bleaching events, Crown of Thorn Starfish a.k.a. COTS (Acanthaster planci) outbreaks, and overfishing can be much more subtle from the surface, but just as devastating. On the first day of surveying Karimunjawa we witnessed reef that seemed to have high sedimentation and a high amount of coral bleaching and the next day I drove SVII over countless amounts of COTS. COTS are voracious coralivores (eat coral) that can decimate coral reefs when their numbers reach plague proportions. Without the ability to get underwater it would be impossible to know a disturbance like this was even occurring, let alone do anything about it. COTS outbreaks are a natural occurrence and can promote gene mixing of corals within coral reef ecosystems. However the synergistic impacts with human disturbance and other impacts such as nutrient run off from agricultural actives and overfishing make it very difficult for coral reefs to recover from a COTs outbreak.



Factors for MPA success: size, community involvement, and education


There have been significant amounts of research into what factors make MPAs an effective management tool. The first is the size and number of MPAs in an area, with larger or higher numbers of MPAs being preferable over protecting one small area and hoping no disturbances occur inside. The second factor is stakeholder involvement, in which the MPA meets the needs of the whole community in order to ensure a livelihood, sense of ownership and duty of care of their natural environment. Finally, education is the key factor, which enables members of the community to understand why and how they can best manage their environment. It is very exciting to be part of the Catlin Seaview Survey in  the Coral Triangle, as the project has the ability to provide scientifically robust information to coral reef MPA mangers and decision makers whilst at the same time engage and educate local communities through the Catlin Global Reef Record, virtual dives and upcoming citizen science initiatives.