Developing the Theory of Marine Reserves

Jane Lubchenco
Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and
Distinguished Professor, Department of Zoology
Oregon State University


We are requesting funds to support an NCEAS working group that will focus on the development of a theoretical basis for the design and establishment of marine reserves. Although there has been an increase in the number of marine reserves designated to man age marine resources, there has not been a concomitant increase in our understanding of marine reserve theory. As a result, reserve designs have often relied heavily on theory formulated for terrestrial ecosystems or on no theory at all. Recent research o n open ecosystems suggests that marine reserves designed using these principles are likely to be ineffective at protecting marine communities over the long term. This fact, along with constantly increasing human pressure on marine ecosystems, indicates th at a theory of reserve design specific to marine ecosystems is urgently needed. A multidisciplinary working group organized through NCEAS has the potential to make a significant contribution to our current understanding of marine reserves.

Problem Statement

The recent recognition of the profound influence of humans in marine systems (e.g., GESAMP 1992, Norse 1993, Chandler et al. 1995, Dayton et al. 1995, Done et al. 1995, Lubchenco et al. 1995, National Research Council 1995, Twilley et al. 1995, Weber and Gradwohl 1995, Allison et al. 1997, Vitousek et al. 1997, Botsford et al. 1997) has been the impetus for strong marine conservation advocacy. One form of marine conservation that has received much interest recently is marine reserves, and the designation of such protected areas has expanded dramatically over the last few decades (Kelleher et al. 1995). Marine reserves are strongly advocated by many resource managers and biologists because they offer benefits not provided by other management strategies, su ch as: protection of specific critical areas (Salm and Clark 1989, Norse 1993), intrinsic prevention of overfishing (Davis 1989, Dugan and Davis 1993), and enhancement of fisheries (Plan Development Team 1990, Castilla 1996).

But compared to their terrestrial counterparts, marine reserves are largely lacking a theoretical basis (Meffe and Carroll 1994). Most theory used in conservation, such as island biogeography (Diamond and May 1981), patch dynamics (Pickett and Thompson 1 978), population genetics (Soule and Simberloff 1985, Boyce 1992, Lande 1995), and even keystone species (Frankel and Soule 1981), has been focused on the problems of terrestrial reserves. Even many of conservation biology's major controversies such as th e "SLOSS" debate (Soule and Simberloff 1985) and the effectiveness of corridors (Simberloff and Cox 1987, Noss 1987, Simberloff et al. 1992), have revolved around terrestrial ecosystems and how to most effectively protect populations within the limited ar eas available. Because the implementation of marine reserves is relatively new and the theoretical and empirical framework for their design is still in its infancy, marine reserve planners have often been forced to rely upon ecological principles derived from terrestrial reserve theory or no principle at all. But marine systems differ fundamentally from terrestrial ecosystems in their degree of openness, and in the scale and variability of physical processes (Steele 1985, Allison et al, 1997). For example , in marine systems, ocean currents can greatly influence the dispersal of both organisms and pollutants and thus can have much stronger region influence over local patterns (Palmer et al. 1996) than is typically observed in terrestrial ecosystems. Humans also impact marine ecosystems differently than terrestrial systems. For example, on land the objects of human exploitation are usually autotrophs (i.e. logging) or herbivores (i.e. hunting), whereas in the ocean human exploitation is often directed at to p-level predators (i.e. fishing). As a result of these differences, marine reserves designed using terrestrial reserve principles are unlikely to provide effective protection of marine ecosystems.

The literature on marine reserves, and their use, effectiveness and potential is growing (see Roberts and Polunin 1991, Rowley 1992, Carr and Reed 1993, Allison et al. 1997, and Schmidt, 1997). In several cases empirical evidence has demonstrated that res erves can harbor higher diversity, higher abundance, and larger-sized organisms (Castilla and Bustamante 1989, Duran and Castilla 1987, Alcala and Russ 1990, Bennet and Attwood 1991, Polunin and Roberts 1993, Francour 1994, Roberts 1995, Jennings et al. 1 996), and even different community structures (Castilla and Duran 1985, Moreno et al. 1986), but whether such patterns can be causally attributed to the presence of reserves is unclear (Cole et al. 1990, Roberts and Polunin 1992). In general, the effectiv eness of marine reserves has not yet been established, and routine monitoring of reserves to measure their utility is still uncommon (Kelleher et al 1995). For these reasons, this is a pivotal time to convene a multidisciplinary group of scientists to di scuss the goals, theory, experimental testing, and monitoring of marine reserves. We propose the establishment of an NCEAS working group to accomplish the following goals:

Rationale for NCEAS Support

Because NCEAS has a reputation for facilitating interactions among diverse groups of scientists, an NCEAS working group would be the most efficient way to advance our understanding of marine reserve ecology. Although meetings of professional societies (i. e., AAAS, ESA, and SCB) offer opportunities for information transfer among scientists, only NCEAS offers an environment for a group of scientists to meet repeatedly for extended periods to deepen understanding of a particular problem such as marine reserv e theory. A discussion of the science of marine reserves will require collaboration among scientists from disciplines such as physical and biological oceanography; behavioral, theoretical, larval, and community ecology; fisheries science, and other relate d fields. Input from ecologists with expertise in terrestrial reserve issues will be critical to this effort since they will help ensure that the working group gets maximal benefit from the extensive experience already accrued in terrestrial ecosystems. NCEAS is in a unique position to foster an effective working relationship between the scientists from such diverse fields.

Proposed Activities and Timetable

We propose an 18 month timetable for these activities. The first activity of the working group will be to hire a full-time post doctoral researcher to assist with the coordination of the working group and to synthesize the current data on marine reserves . Although much of the information regarding the effectiveness of marine reserves is anecdotal, we suspect that a considerable amount of valuable information exists that has not been published. Prior to the first meeting of the core working group, the pos t doctoral researcher's time will be devoted to obtaining, summarizing, and disseminating this published and unpublished information. The post doctoral fellow will also establish an electronic mail discussion group among all participants in order to faci litate communication before and after all meetings. An important responsibility of the post doctoral fellow will be to support the development and working group participants in the publication of theory, models, and experimental design developed througho ut the time period.

A core working group of scientists will meet for four consecutive days three separate times in the 18 month period. Using the information synthesized by the post doctoral fellow, the goal of the first meeting will be to begin developing the theory necess ary to effectively guide the establishment of future marine reserves. Both during the first meeting and subsequently at their home institutions participants will address fundamental, but unanswered questions such as: What goals can be accomplished with m arine reserves? What is the appropriate size for a marine reserve?; Are some goals incompatible with others? Given a specified goal, what are the most important differences between marine and terrestrial reserves? What aspects of terrestrial reserve t heory can be transferred to marine ecosystems?; How should networks of reserves be designed for maximum effectiveness?; What should determine the placement of specific reserves?; etc..

In total the core working group will comprise 12-15 scientists.


Loo Botsford (Davis)
Alan Hastings (Davis)
Bob Warner (Santa Barbara)
Monty Slatkin (Berkeley)
Richard Strathmann (University of Washington)
Mary Ruckelshaus (NMFS, Seattle)
Mike Turelli (Davis)
Callum Roberts (Univ. of York)
Hugh Possingham (Adelaide)
George Branch (Cape Town)
Juan Carlos Castilla (P. U. Catolica de Chile)
Dan Doak (Santa Cruz)
Ilkka Hanski (Helsinki)
Eileen Hofmann (Old Dominion)
John Largier (San Diego)
Colin Clark (British Columbia)

One year into the project, it will be valuable to conduct a larger symposium of approximately 40 scientists and non-academics. The goal of this symposium will be both to share the progress made by the core group of scientists and to ensure that these acad emic efforts are coordinated with the practical needs of policy makers, conservationists, and fishers. For the symposium, each member of the core working group will be requested to deliver a paper based on the outcome of their first year's work. These pr esentations will provide the basis for submissions to the primary literature. The post doctoral researcher, NCEAS, and the project leaders will determine the logistics of the symposium. One option is to hold this symposium in conjunction with the annual meeting of a professional society (i.e. ESA, AFS). However, it may be more productive to invite the additional 40 participants to Santa Barbara in order to ensure a dedicated focus on the issue at hand. Moreover, many expected invitees do not usually a ttend any single meeting.

At the final meeting, the core working group will review and approve all products. In addition, the working group will develop recommendations and guidelines for reserve planners.

Anticipated Results and Beneficiaries

In response to conservation concerns, the number of marine reserves will undoubtedly continue to grow. With appropriate input from the academic community, it is possible to plan these reserves and networks of reserves based on sound ecological principles. Both the fishing industry and marine conservationists have requested additional input from the research community, but so far the scientific community has been unable to provide much guidance. The NCEAS working group proposed here would be a significant step in the right direction. The primary product of the working group will be the development of a theory for marine reserves. A variety of products are envisioned, including

1) recommendations and guidelines for reserve placement, design, and monitoring; 2) synthesis of existing data from marine reserves; and 3) an edited volume or special issue of a journal with papers developed during the NCEAS working group.

These products will be designed to serve two purposes. The first goal of the products is to provide practical advice to improve the design, placement, and monitoring of marine reserves. The second goal will be to advance the theory of marine reserves an d hopefully stimulate additional theoretical and empirical efforts.

The working group will also explore the limits of current scientific knowledge. For example, current limitations such as the difficulty in tracking planktonic larvae may leave some questions unanswered until well into the future. Communication of both pos sible contributions as well as limitations of the science are appropriate. Budget for Marine Reserves Working Group (18 months)


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