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In the World of Conservation, “Compliance” Makes or Breaks a Marine Reserve’s Success. Here’s How We Can Be Better.

By Blue Parks Intern Kate Allcock

Featured Image by Antonio-Soriano

When it comes to conservation, quality matters as much as quantity. When a marine protected area’s rules aren’t followed, non-compliance can result in marine reserves that are protected “on paper” but ineffective at achieving any real biodiversity or climate benefits. What factors contribute to non-compliance, and how can our understanding of these variables lead to equitable new strategies for achieving effective marine conservation?

The potential ecological and economic benefits of well-designed, well-managed, and strongly protected marine protected areas (MPAs) are no secret: higher biodiversity, increased fish biomass and climate resilience to name a few (Aburto-Oropeza et al., 2011; Sala & Giakoumi, 2018). Their success, however, depends upon effective implementation and management; and with international targets set to protect 30% of the global ocean by 2030, conservationists fear that MPA quantity will be prioritized over quality. If the 30% is not effectively protected, it will not produce the conservation benefits we seek. Over the past decade, scientists have identified the MPA qualities associated with positive conservation outcomes, including size, age, enforcement, presence of no-take areas, and ecological isolation (Edgar et al., 2014). While it makes sense that enforcing an MPA’s regulations is important for generating conservation benefits, enforcement is really one piece of a larger puzzle: compliance. It is high rates of compliance with protective regulations that produce conservation benefits, and enforcement is only one of multiple strategies to achieve high compliance. Understanding the factors that contribute to non-compliance in MPAs is essential for guiding strategies to increase compliance and achieve effective MPAs.

Non-compliance is the “lack of adherence to regulations or rules” (Iacarella et al. 2021). Enforcement measures, such as the use of direct observation methods (e.g., patrols) and punitive measures (e.g., fines) have the potential to eliminate significant violations within an MPA (Iacarella et al. 2021).  Many MPA experts consider insufficient enforcement to be one of the primary drivers of non-compliance in MPAs (Iacarella et al. 2021), and gaps in enforcement often result from a deficient budget (Kuempel et al., 2017). Non-compliance is likely to become an increasingly widespread problem for MPAs if we prioritize MPA coverage over MPA quality. A 2017 study examining data of hundreds of MPAs from every temperate and tropical ocean basin found that 65% of managers describe their budget as inadequate and 91% describe their staff capacity as “below optimum” (Gill et al. 2017). Therefore, to make MPAs as effective as possible, we must focus on adequately financing and staffing them to facilitate high enforcement and compliance levels.

However, while staff and resource capacity are incredibly important to MPA success, MPA compliance is multifaceted, and enforcement is only one component. Meta-analyses of MPA literature published around the globe have shown up to eight significant factors leading to non-compliance worldwide: a lack of awareness of MPA boundaries, higher fish abundance in MPAs leading to increased poaching, dependence on MPAs for food or livelihood, overly complex design of MPAs, economic incentives for exploitation within MPAs (e.g. tourism or jewelry markets targeting high value species), lack of enforcement, lack of community inclusion due to poor or corrupt governance, and social norms (Iacarella et al., 2021). Several of these factors revolve around another key component of MPA compliance – engaging local communities in management. MPA designation can heavily impact communities at a social and political level, and social and governance factors such as inclusivity, equity, and legitimacy can impact the level of regulatory compliance. Inclusive decision-making arrangements were reported in only 51% of MPAs examined in the 2017 study mentioned above (Gill et al., 2017).  

Given the interdisciplinary nature of effective compliance, it is valuable to focus on multiple avenues of action, not just bolstering enforcement, to eliminate non-compliance in MPAs. Examining the often-underrepresented socioeconomic contexts that drive non-compliance and implementing inclusive, equitable decision-making processes regarding MPA management will ensure a broader reach in the community and encourage individuals to report violations in the MPA that may otherwise go undetected (Iacarella et al., 2021). Similarly, fostering a sense of environmental stewardship in local communities through education and outreach will enhance the connection between users and the MPA. A community-based approach to management secures the legitimacy of the MPA and promotes higher compliance with regulations.

As nations continue to designate MPAs around the globe to meet ambitious conservation targets, they must consider the many social, political, and biophysical aspects of managing an MPA. Our science-based Blue Park Award criteria provide a helpful guide – Blue Parks sets the bar for effective MPAs. Allocating sufficient resources towards enforcement, ensuring inclusion of local communities in the management of MPAs, increasing awareness and transparency regarding MPA design and aims, and incorporating rigorous, science-based frameworks into MPA management will advance MPA compliance significantly and put us one step closer to achieving 30% effective protection of the ocean by 2030.


  1. Edgar, G. J. et al. (2014) Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features. Nature 506: 216–220.
  2. Kuempel, C.D. et al. (2017) Bigger or better: The relative benefits of protected area network expansion and enforcement for the conservation of an exploited species. Conservation Letters 11(3): e12433
  3. Iacarella, J. C. et al. (2021) A synthesis of the prevalence and drivers of non-compliance in marine protected areas. Biological Conservation 255: 108992.
  4. Gill, D. A. et al. (2017) Capacity gaps hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally. Nature 543: 665-669.
  5. Sala, E. and Giakoumi, S. (2018) No-take marine reserves are the most effective protected areas in the ocean. ICES Journal of Marine Science 75(3): 1166–1168.
  6. Aburto-Oropeza, O. et al. (2011) Large recovery of fish biomass in a no-take marine reserve. PLoSONE 6(8): e23601