Solving the mystery of marine protected area (MPA) performance

Linking governance, conservation, ecosystem services, and human well being.

The Challenge

Even as threats to healthy oceans increase, marine ecosystem services—including fisheries, coastal protection, and marine tourism—play a critical role in the economies of many developing countries, contributing to livelihoods and food security for billions.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are key strategies for sustaining the delivery of critical marine ecosystem services, but recent reviews have revealed wide variation in ecological and social outcomes.

The Response

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is teaming up with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) to evaluate the performance of MPAs around the world. SESYNC is a US based synthesis center at the University of Maryland funded by the US National Science Foundation that supports research focused on the complex interactions between human and ecological systems.

In this collaboration, a SESYNC funded research pursuit—similar in structure to a Luc Hoffmann Institute collaborative research team—is working with a Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow to uncover the links between MPA governance and socio-ecological outcomes by compiling, integrating, and analyzing data from MPAs across the globe.

The Engagement

This project centers around a working group of researchers and stakeholders from multiple research disciplines as well as academic and non-academic backgrounds. Over a three-year period, the team held four meetings at SESYNC to scope and refine the research questions, compile data sources as well as identify target audiences and key end-users for the research.

The project team collaborated with the World Commission on Protected Areas and the IUCN to co-host a side event at the Twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 12) in Pyeongchang, South Korea October 6 – 17, 2014. The side event focused on the following key messages:

  1. the need for investment in:
    • long term monitoring to understand trends in the status of biological values of protected areas and the threats facing them, and;
    • for concurrent socio-economic, management and biological monitoring data to elucidate site scale trends;
  2. the importance of open access to data and instruments for collecting and storing it;
  3. ensuring that individuals, institutions and countries recognise this need and commit to action.

Research Outputs

  • We will produce 1-2 high impact peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as more detailed discipline-specific articles and related policy briefs. These can be disseminated widely through our networks and will include the application of the results of the global synthesis and analysis at a regional scale (e.g. Caribbean).
  • Collaborate with another initiative to develop an easy-to-use database and front-end interface so that MPA managers can easily enter their monitoring data. This structure will allow them to backup and manage their ecological and possibly social and management data. In making the analytics simple to use, managers will be able to see summary results instantly and be able to compare their MPA with past data and with others in their region or around the world.


  • Through the synthesis of existing information that links MPA governance, ecosystem services, and human well-being, novel insights will emerge that advance fundamental scientific knowledge of MPAs and inform local-to-global policy and practice.
  • This open-source database can, in the future, be used to develop a new standard for increasingly rigorous monitoring of MPAs, encourage data sharing, inform marine conservation policy and strengthen a culture of evaluation in the conservation sector.
  • Recommendations to high-level decision-makers, including international donors, will be an important step towards improving monitoring activities and management effectiveness assessments within protected areas around the world.

Project Partners

Luc Hoffmann Institute, SESYNC

Project Leadership

David Gill (Luc Hoffmann/SESYNC Fellow),  Margaret Palmer (SESYNC) and Helen Fox (Rare).

Chris JohnsonSolving the Mystery of Marine Protected Area Performance