Effects of Marine Protected Areas

WWF scientists collaborate on a geographically expansive, long-term study to quantify the impacts of marine protected areas on both people and nature

Jan Piter Renuth is the Raja (King) of Loorlobay, one of the three kings of Kei Besar, a small island in Indonesia’s Eastern Maluku Regency. At 86 years old, the Raja is deaf in both ears. As he greets us, he jokes that having lost both his hearing and his teeth, his eyes will be the next to go. He passes around a brass prayer box containing a coconut kernel, some tea leaves, a small bowl of water, and 17,000 rupiah (the equivalent of about US$1.25). He asks that everyone gathered stare into the prayer box for long enough to reveal his or her soul. He nods in approval as the box is passed from person to person. Behind him, a saltwater crocodile as long as a man is tall lies asleep in a cage; its presence is never explained.

We’re meeting with the Raja as part of a multiyear ecological and social monitoring project, for which WWF—in collaboration with a diverse team of experts (see below)—is gathering much-needed data on the impacts of marine protected areas (MPAs). Our conclusions will help inform local marine management decisions, shape global policy on when and where MPAs can be effective tools for conservation, and influence the design of new MPAs in Indonesia.

One of our tasks is to learn from the people who live here what they are doing to protect the marine resources they rely on. The Raja begins by describing sasi, a traditional resource management system that is common among coastal communities in eastern Indonesia. It is primarily a set of rules regarding the use—or restriction of use—of natural resources. To clarify the rules, the Raja displays an array of signs, made mostly from coconut palm, and explains the varying degrees of sasi prohibition that each denotes. Punishments for noncompliance start at a stern telling off, he claims, but escalate with astonishing quickness to capital punishment. He drives this last claim home with one of the many swords he has laid out on the table. The Raja is as theatrical as he is observant of tradition.

Sasi and related forms of customary property rights are just some of the many factors that make marine ecosystem management so complex in Indonesia. A bewildering patchwork of policies; more than 300 ethnic groups; and a mix of interconnected coastal systems (including mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass beds) and oceanic ecosystems make a one-size-fits-all approach to conservation impossible.

That’s why WWF’s Gabby Ahmadia, senior marine scientist, and Louise Glew, lead scientist for monitoring and evaluation, have taken up the challenge of disentangling all the myths, half-truths, and unproven theories about the impacts of MPAs across the archipelago. It’s no small task. Glew jokes: “Since my wedding, I’ve spent more time with Gabby than with my husband.”

Five years into the monitoring study, almost half a million fish have been counted and more than 3,500 households have been interviewed, making it by far the largest study of its kind ever conducted.

“Getting to the right amount of data takes time and thoughtful planning,” says Glew.

“And the right amount of data is lots and lots,” Ahmadia adds with a smile.

Cosmas Sirken Searching

Cosmos Sirken searches for mud crabs in the mangroves near his home. He is part of a crab-fishing cooperative in Kei Kecil, Indonesia.

Days earlier, we’d been knee-deep in mud, desperately trying to keep up with Cosmos Sirken as he waded through the mangrove swamps around his village. Sirken was looking for mud crabs, and we were hoping not to encounter any crocodiles. Sirken is part of a crab-fishing cooperative formed earlier this year to protect the crab’s unique mangrove habitat. WWF-Indonesia is helping Sirken’s group establish sustainable harvest guidelines and record their catch data.

Back at Sirken’s house, we ate freshly prepared crab while his son, Bosco, entered the data from our harvest into a Google Nexus tablet supplied through WWF’s collaboration with Google. The hope is that this data will enable the group to formalize the status of the crab fishery and ultimately use that recognition to secure political, financial, and other support. Securing these rights could translate into a sustainable harvest for generations to come, not to mention crucial protection for a large tract of mangrove and—at $10 a crab—valuable income for harvesters.

“The real challenge,” Glew explains, “is to design MPAs so that they work with preexisting social systems. Ideally we reinforce these dynamics, as opposed to working against them.”

And it’s the marriage of ecological and social impact evaluation that makes this project so exciting. “Everyone knows that for MPAs to be sustainable and effective, the resources they protect must continue to benefit the communities that rely on those resources,” Glew says. “It’s just that until now, no one has systematically gathered enough data on human well-being, underpinned by an appropriate monitoring design, to build an accurate picture of how MPAs actually affect communities at scale.”

We visited the small island of Pulau Nai to lay groundwork for upcoming monitoring efforts in the surrounding Kei Kecil MPA. WWF’s office there has been working with a seaweed-farming group to promote alternative livelihoods and protect endangered turtle populations. Seaweed farming is huge in the Kei Islands, and the government is actively supporting it in an attempt to provide income to local communities—income which offsets fishing activities that put pressure on reef fish stocks. As with Sirken’s crab fishery, WWF-Indonesia is helping formalize the seaweed-farming group so that they can reach out to the local district for subsidies and other assistance. In exchange, the seaweed farmers have agreed to stop harvesting hawksbill turtle eggs. When we arrive, some of the farmers take us to see six hatchlings they’ve been protecting.

The turtles are old enough to be released, so we carry them out into the water and set them free. For a tense moment, nothing happens. The turtles drift on the surface with their limbs retracted, sunlight bouncing off their tiny shells. But slowly, one by one, they seem to come back to life, kicking down below the surface and heading out to the open ocean.

As Glew returns to the village to conduct a key interview, Ahmadia and I put on scuba equipment and head out in a boat. On our way, Ahmadia picks up the thread of Glew’s thoughts on the lack of conclusive data about the impact of MPAs.

Gabby Ahmadia, WWF senior marine scientist, surveys a reef in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

“You would assume MPAs are always good for marine species, but we’ve never had solid evidence to really understand the magnitude and variation of ecological outcomes in the protected areas,” she says. “Preliminary data suggests that positive outcomes are often the case, but until we have more comprehensive data it’s hard to make a case for the true value of MPAs.”

A majority of studies on MPA impacts, Ahmadia continues, have tended to be limited in their scope across either time or space. “Some studies have conducted time series experiments in an MPA, while others have conducted cross-section snapshots comparing reefs inside and outside an MPA. But both approaches are limited—neither allows you to accurately isolate the effects of the MPA.”

Jan Piter Renuth, Raja of Loorlobay

Jan Piter Renuth, Raja (King) of Loorlobay

On our dive, Ahmadia brings along transect tape and a clipboard to show me how reef monitoring is carried out. It’s a five-person job. The “roll master” rolls out 150 feet of tape at as close to a uniform depth as the underwater topography allows. Two other divers count fish, with one cataloguing species above 14 inches in length and the other compiling a list of smaller fish. The last two team members collect data from the sea bottom itself, calculating the percentage of coverage by corals, sponges, rocks, and other substrate or living organisms within the reef’s ecosystem.

In total, five such transects are completed at more than 300 different sites every two to three years.

Ahmadia’s ecological monitoring occurs in parallel to Glew’s social study, which is being conducted across a similar breadth of geography and time. Specifically, in partnership with Glew, a team of Universitas Papua professors and students conducts a targeted series of household surveys, focus groups, and key informant interviews. (Glew herself does not conduct in-person interviews, for fear the presence of a WWF staff scientist would skew the results—something Ahmadia needn’t fear with the fish.) The WWF and Universitas team then analyzes that data together—trading insights and updates between Indonesia and Washington, DC.

The sheer scale of these linked endeavors presents a real challenge to developing a comprehensive, reliable, and easily replicable methodology, and Glew concedes that this is tough work. “A phenomenal amount of patience is required,” she admits, but insists that “while we’re working in a place with limited data and at scale, we’re finding we are able to gather the data we need. Compared with the more limited monitoring techniques that have been used before now, this method gives us a high return on investment. And as the extent of the data increases, the number of statistical models we can run rapidly expands.” It’s that scale, combined with the way in which Ahmadia and Glew select and match their control sites, that offers something truly different.

“The Walton Family Foundation believes strongly in the power of monitoring and evaluating the conservation work we support, so we can say with conviction whether those actions will lead to the changes in the water—and in people's lives—that we expect. The rigorous scientific approach Gabby, Louise, and their partners bring will allow us to measure and communicate the direct benefits these MPAs have had for marine conservation and human well-being.”

Peter Bryant
Senior Program Officer, Oceans Initiative, The Walton Family Foundation

Using a new, more rigorous approach, Glew and Ahmadia are matching MPA sites with suitable control sites outside of the MPAs with an eye toward identifying those unprotected settlements and reefs that are most similar to those inside the monitored and protected areas. To do this, the team collates preexisting data on key variables—such as exposure to wave action, reef type, distance to market, and social structure—that do, or likely will, influence where MPAs are established. Since preexisting data in eastern Indonesia are often scattered or hard to find, Ahmadia and Glew fill in the gaps and cross-reference by tapping into local experts and leading scientists.

The local field team then begins extensive baseline surveys, collecting data on the key variables that influence MPA establishment and outcomes, as well as important ecological and social variables that could be affected by MPA establishment (e.g., hard coral cover, biomass of key fisheries species, household food security, and the emotional bond between an individual and a particular place).

Together, these data yield the quantity and quality of information Glew and Ahmadia need to pair reefs and households inside the MPA with similar “control” reefs and households unaffected by the MPA, providing a critically important baseline against which to measure and anticipate future changes in ecosystems and human well-being. The rigor is important, both say, because it creates a real-world experiment that allows Ahmadia, Glew, and their partners to isolate the signature impacts of MPA establishment despite ever-changing social and ecological conditions.

Back in the village, Glew has been talking to Anolda Jamlean, who has been using the profits from seaweed farming to see her grandchildren through college. Jamlean seems to support the agreement not to hunt turtles, welcoming the cooperation between WWF and the community. And this sort of buy-in from local stakeholders is a crucial component of MPA design: In truth, a good chunk of conservation work is about listening to people and building consensus among different groups, from those at the village level to policymakers.

And this is where Ahmadia and Glew’s coordinated ecological and social monitoring really comes into its own. By isolating the impacts of MPAs from other extraneous variables, they are able to work toward what Glew terms “an evidence base for conservation,” which, in a field rich with debate about whether or not MPAs are the best strategy for protecting marine ecosystems, could prove to be a vital tool in empowering decision makers.

A boy plays near Pasir Panjang beach, Kei Kecil, where many people feel a deep connection to the sea.

It Takes a (Scientific) Village

An effort of this scale requires a large and diverse team. WWF-Indonesia, in particular, has provided in-country coordination, implementation, and support, and has helped ensure that our monitoring efforts are embedded in national policy-making decisions—particularly in the Sunda Banda seascape. Across the study’s full geographic range, the scientific and programmatic success of the project depends heavily on the expertise of, and collaboration with, the core partners listed below.

Conservation International

Indonesia Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

The Nature Conservancy

Reef Check

Universitas Papua

University of Nusa Cendana

Universitas Pattimura

Wildlife Conservation Society

The hope, of course, is that policymakers will adopt Ahmadia and Glew’s findings, and that their work will spill over into MPA design and marine spatial planning. “We need a more balanced view of MPAs,” Glew says. “We need to move away from the polarizing conversations about whether MPAs are 'good' or 'bad,' and instead look at the nuances that can determine how we implement our findings to improve MPA design.”

This is at the crux of what Ahmadia, Glew, and their partners are pushing for: a new evidence-based dialogue about MPAs that will help us move beyond conjecture and subjective decision-making, and ultimately improve how MPAs are run.

But their ambitions don’t end there. Both Ahmadia and Glew believe that these field methods could easily be transitioned to terrestrial monitoring, applied to the development of certification standards, and used to inform community-based conservation strategies, among others. Having a rigorous, evidence-based approach across more areas of conservation would enable us to see what’s working and what’s not—and, most important, why.

As our boat chugs away, the Raja of Loorlobay—the king with the crocodile—starts to cry. The moment is as touching as it is telling, echoing a sentiment the Raja had previously shared—that it’s sad to see his culture changing and the ecosystem growing more vulnerable every day. Social change in Kei Besar is inevitable; sasi still holds strong for now, but young people are leaving the island in increasing numbers and with them goes the traditional sense of stewardship that could be handed down.

Throughout Indonesia, as communities undergo similar changes, there’s a real opportunity for the conservation community to help build a more workable foundation to advance and improve our care of natural resources. Glew, Ahmadia, and their partners hope that what they learn from their monitoring project will help fortify that advance.

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