Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are clearly defined geographic areas which are designated, regulated and/or managed to achieve specific conservation objectives. MPAs are an acknowledged tool for protecting marine biodiversity (marine species, habitats and ecological processes), contributing to an Ecosystem Approach. However, their establishment in Europe has lagged behind terrestrial equivalents and has taken place in an ‘ad hoc’ and largely un-coordinated way in response to political drivers. European MPAs have been established for a variety of purposes and protection categories and, like distribution globally, their coverage is both uneven and unrepresentative at multiple scales.
Networks of MPAs contributing to ecosystem-based marine spatial management are perceived as an optimal way to safeguard biodiversity assets and the Natura 2000 network and networks promoted by the European Regional Seas Conventions have grown exponentially in recent years, making significant progress towards global targets.
A broad array of science needs and priorities together with clear attainable and measurable objectives are necessary to establish ecologically coherent MPA networks. Assessing the connectivity of marine populations remains a challenge for most species and multidisciplinary studies combining oceanographic modeling, larval ecology and population genetics are needed. Knowledge on connectivity is even more essential for designing networks of MPAs. A general understanding of the effectiveness of MPA networks as a fisheries management and conservation tool will depend on a broader range of case studies that apply new methods (such as genetics) to quantify connectivity. Assessing a coherent network of MPAs ideally requires an EU-wide coherent network of monitoring stations, particularly for evaluating recovery processes inside MPAs and connectivity among MPAs.
Drawing on literature and practical case studies the Working Group has highlighted science research needs in the areas of data collection; habitat classifications; baselines and monitoring; ecological coherence and connectivity and ecological processes. These are complemented by recognition of the need for further research and guidance for MPAs in the context of emerging issues; legal clarifications; stakeholder involvement; policy guidance informed by science and advantages of closer cooperation between scientific monitoring and surveillance and enforcement activities.