Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a primary tool for the stewardship, conservation, and restoration of marine ecosystems, yet 69% of global MPAs are only partially protected. Partially protected areas may provide benefits in some contexts and may be warranted for social reasons, yet social outcomes often depend on MPAs achieving their ecological goals to distinguish them from open areas and justify the cost of protection.

This study assessed the social perceptions and ecological effectiveness of 18 partially protected areas and 19 fully protected areas compared with 19 open areas along 7,000 km of coast of southern Australia.

The results show no social or ecological benefits for partially protected areas relative to open areas. Partially protected areas had no more fish, invertebrates, or algae that open areas; were poorly understood by coastal users; were not more attractive than open areas; and were not perceived to have better marine life than open areas.

It is highlighted that these findings provide an important counterpoint to some large-scale meta-analyses that conclude partially protected areas can be ecologically effective but that draw this conclusion based on narrower measures.

The authors state that partially protected areas act as red herrings in marine conservation because they create an illusion of protection and consume scarce conservation resources yet provide little or no social or ecological gain over open areas. Fully protected areas, by contrast, have more fish species and biomass and are well understood, supported, and valued by the public. The authors suggest that conservation outcomes can be improved by upgrading partially protected areas to higher levels of protection including conversion to fully protected areas.

Turnbull et al. (2021) Evaluating the social and ecological effectiveness of partially protected marine areas. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13677