Purpose vs performance: What does marine protected area success look like?

Katherine Yates, Beverley Clarke, Ruth H. Thurstan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


Marine protected areas (MPAs) are an increasingly deployed spatial management tool. MPAs are primarily designed for biodiversity conservation, with their success commonly measured using a narrow suite of ecological indicators. However, for MPAs to achieve their biodiversity conservation goals they require community support, which is dependent on wider social, economic and political factors. Despite this, research into the human dimensions of MPAs continues to lag behind our understanding of ecological responses to MPA protection. Here, we explore stakeholders’ perceptions of what MPA success is. We conducted a series of semi-structured interviews and focus groups with a diverse group of stakeholders local to a South Australian MPA. What constitutes success varied by stakeholder group, and stakeholders’ stated understanding of the purpose of the MPA differed from how they would choose to measure the MPA's success. Indeed, all interviewees stated that the primary purpose of the MPA was ecological, yet almost all (>90%) would measure the success of the MPA using social and economic measures, either exclusively or in conjunction with ecological ones. Many respondents also stated that social and economic factors were key to the MPA achieving ongoing/future success. Respondents generated a large range of novel socio-economic measures of MPA success, many of which could be incorporated into monitoring programs for relatively little additional cost. These findings also show that success is not straightforward and what constitutes success depends on who you ask. Even where an MPA's primary ecological purpose is acknowledged by stakeholders, stakeholders are likely to only consider the MPA a success if its designation also demonstrates social and economic benefits to their communities. To achieve local stakeholder support MPAs and associated monitoring programs need to be designed for a variety of success criteria in mind, criteria which reflect the priorities and needs of the adjacent communities as well as national and international conservation objectives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-86
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Issue numberFebruary
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


  • Marine protected areas
  • Conservation
  • Stakeholders
  • Community engagement


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