Study Models How Well Marine Protected Areas Overlap Fish Habitat

Caitlin Dempsey


Marine protected areas (MPA) are sections of the ocean set aside for specific uses and protections. The goal with establishing marine planning areas is to balance different needs—like fishing, shipping, and tourism with oceanic conservation—so that we can use the ocean’s resources without harming the environment and marine species.

The intended major advantage of marine planning areas is to protect important parts of the ocean. For example, marine protected areas are zones where activities like fishing are limited to preserve natural habitats. This helps safeguard crucial areas where marine animals breed, grow, and feed. Marine planning also guides where we can safely set up things like wind farms or fish farms, minimizing damage to sensitive environments.

Types of marine protected areas

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) come in various types, each with different levels of protection and management objectives. Here are some of the main types:

  1. Marine Reserves: Also known as “no-take areas”, marine reservesare the most restrictive type of MPA. All extractive activities, such as fishing, mining, and drilling, are prohibited. The primary goal is to preserve marine life and habitats in their natural state. Marine reserves often serve as scientific reference sites to study untouched ecosystems.
  2. National Marine Sanctuaries: These areas are established to protect significant natural and cultural resources. They often allow multiple uses, such as recreation, tourism, and fishing, but with certain restrictions to ensure protection of the environment.
An underwater view of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) on the sandy floor of the ocean.
Looe Key is a marine sanctuary in the lower Florida Keys. In this marine protected area, staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) are being restored. Photo: Lauren Toth, USGS, public domain.
  1. Marine Parks: These are designated areas that combine conservation with sustainable use. Activities like fishing and tourism may be permitted under regulated conditions. Marine parks aim to balance protection with economic and recreational activities.
  2. Wildlife Refuges: These areas focus on protecting specific species or habitats. They may have varying levels of restrictions depending on the needs of the species or habitats being protected. Activities that could harm the targeted wildlife are regulated or prohibited.
  3. Special Management Areas: These MPAs are created to address specific conservation challenges or objectives. They may focus on particular issues like habitat restoration, species protection, or sustainable resource use. Management measures are tailored to meet the specific needs of the area.
  4. Multiple-Use MPAs: These areas allow a range of activities, including fishing, recreation, and tourism, but under managed conditions to ensure the sustainability of marine resources. Zoning within the MPA can designate specific areas for different activities to reduce conflicts and protect sensitive regions.
  5. Biosphere Reserves: These are areas recognized under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. They include terrestrial and marine ecosystems and are designated to promote sustainable development, conservation, and scientific research. Biosphere reserves typically have core protected areas surrounded by zones with increasing levels of human activity.

How are marine protected areas created?

The establishment of these marine protected areas typically involves extensive stakeholder engagement, scientific research, and policy-making to create a framework that seeks to balance human activities with ocean health.

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A grayscale map of the United States showing areas in teal and blue that are protected marine areas.
Map showing the 26% of of U.S. waters that are marine protected areas. Map: NOAA, public domain.

Scientists and conservationists study marine ecosystems to identify areas that are biologically significant and that might best be protected by the creation of a marine protected area. These areas might include coral reefs, breeding grounds of threatened or sensitive marine species, or regions with high oceanic biodiversity.

Modeling how well marine protected areas overlap with fish populations

A study by researchers from France and the United Kingdom published in the Journal of Applied Ecology modeled how well established marine protected areas overlapped with habitat of 11 diadromous fish species (fish that migrated salt and freshwater habitats).

For the study, the researchers developed a ‘Combined Model for Accurate Prediction’ to better predict the distribution of rare and data-poor species. This model was developed with the goal of improving the accuracy of identifying key habitats and unsuitable areas. This enhanced modeling could be use to help conservation managers in making informed decisions about protection efforts.

The model was tested on 11 rare fish species during their time at sea to evaluate the effectiveness of current marine protected areas (MPAs). The model accurately identified both core and unsuitable habitats.

For seven diadromous fish species, it was found that most MPAs meant to protect them are not located in their key habitats. Even when core habitats were within an MPA, only 50% of these areas were designated for their protection. The results of this study indicates that current MPAs are not adequately protecting these important and threatened aquatic species.

Why accurate marine protected areas are needed

As biodiversity declines worldwide, understanding species distribution is crucial for effective management. Predicting where rare or hard-to-detect species live is challenging due to data gaps and observer biases, leading to inaccurate predictions and uncertainty in management, especially for highly mobile species with little data.

Accurately predicting species distribution is essential for effective marine conservation. The authors of the study argued that this model improves the identification of key and unsuitable habitats, informing targeted conservation measures.

The study

Elliott, S. A., Dubost, G., Rivot, E., Acou, A., Toison, V., Réveillac, E., & Beaulaton, L. (2024). Accurately predicting rare and poorly detectable species habitat for spatial protectionJournal of Applied Ecology. DOI: /10.1111/1365-2664.14664

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.