The costs of protecting the big blue

Our oceans are in big trouble. Worldwide declines in marine wildlife, including the collapse of several fisheries, and the deterioration of marine habitats, prompted calls at the 2012 Global Workshop of the Convention on Biological Diversity for the establishment of a global system of marine protected areas (MPAs). At this workshop, it was agreed that all countries should protect, at least, one-tenth of all their coastal and marine areas by 2020. New Zealand’s government committed to expanding its network of MPAs accordingly. But, what are the financial costs of meeting those targets? Are they financially feasible?

Protecting a piece of our oceans, as everything else in this world, costs money. The direct costs of MPAs can be divided into pre-establishment, establishment and management costs. Thus, before an MPA is declared, a consultation process must be held and marine surveys are usually required, all of which cost money. Once it has been decided that the MPA will be set, this must be established. Establishing an MPA requires further biological surveys, and an initial investment in order to buy equipment and boundary demarcation, as well as to set public information signage. Finally, the MPA needs to be maintained and duly enforced. For that, staff needs to be recruited – and paid-, the equipment bought needs to be maintained or upgraded, and very often further purchases of equipment or facilities are also required.

Establishing an MPA also implies indirect costs, which are rarely considered and poorly understood. A common indirect cost of MPAs is the additional expenditure of relocating fishing effort to other areas that may be more difficult to access or that may be less profitable for fishermen.


A kelp forest in the Taputeranga Marine Reserve (Wellington, New Zealand). Author: Danica Devery-Smith 

The few studies that exist on the costs of marine protected areas have focused on the direct expenditures from running, equipping and staffing an MPA. However, as explained above, this is a massive underestimation of its real cost. In a recent paper published in the journal Marine Policy, Ursula Rojas-Nazar and her PhD supervisors, Ross Cullen (Emeritus Professor of Resource Economics at Lincoln University), James Bell and Jonathon Gardener ( Victoria University), investigated both the direct and indirect economic costs of not only maintaining, but also creating marine reserves in New Zealand (NZ) – the type of MPA offering the highest degree of protection in the country.

The authors of the study analysed the costs of running five marine reserves across NZ’s waters. According to their results, protecting 1 square km of NZ’s marine environment requires only NZ$3,683 per year. This amount is far lower than what previous studies had reported for developed countries (NZ$11,023  per square km per year), and it was closer to figures attributed to managing MPAs in developing countries (NZ$2,445 per square km per year).

Using the results of the study, and considering that there are currently 44 marine reserves in NZ – spanning a total surface of  17,430 square km; the overall annual cost of running the whole MPA network would be about NZ$64 million. Although this may sound like a lot, it represents less than a 10% of the NZ$700 million annual budget that NZ’s government has for environmental protection. This is a very tiny fraction, especially if we consider the enormous benefits that MPAs have been proven to have.


Map showing the location of New Zealand’s marine reserves. Source: 


The currently established network of protected areas represents only 0.4% of NZ’s sea waters – a long way off the 10% target. Therefore, if the government is to continue expanding the MPA network, not only additional management costs but also establishment outlays can be expected. One of the most interesting aspects of the study is its attempt to estimate the pre-establishment and establishment costs of marine reserves. Not much is known about the scale of the money requirements for creating a marine protected area, and gathering information on this issue is not easy work. In fact, the study could only analyse such information for one marine reserve out of the 44 that currently exist. If that one reserve is considered to be representative of the rest of NZ’s marine reserves, it seems that the establishment costs of marine reserves in NZ are substantially lower than in other countries.

All in all, the results seem to suggest that protecting NZ’s big blue is much cheaper than we could have imagined. But, can those figures be used as a reference? They certainly provide some guidance in the absence of other studies, but they must be regarded cautiously. Costs of running and establishing protected areas are highly variable and depend on multiple factors, such as distance to the inhabited locations or population size in nearby areas.

One of the biggest limitations of the study is that the analysed marine reserves were all located near the coast. This is where virtually all NZ’s marine reserves are found, so it is certainly a fair representation of the current national MPA system. However, if NZ is to achieve set international conservation goals, it is in offshore areas, which represent 96% of all NZ’s marine environment, where additional marine reserves must be established. The cost of establishing and managing protected areas far offshore is likely to differ from inshore marine reserves. Thus, as long as these costs remain unexplored, the financial feasibility of meeting international conservation targets will remain unknown.


Views across Goat Island Marine Reserve (north Auckland, New Zealand). Author: Ivan Lao


Conservation needs sufficient funding – and conservationists need economics

What is clear is that MPAs cannot be implemented for free and resources are limited. Assessing the costs of protecting our oceans should not scare us. Ecologists and conservationists appear to be reluctant to pay attention to economic issues, especially when it has to do with the costs of achieving our goals. Are we scared of opening the doors to economic factors influencing conservation decisions? Are we trying to avoid facing the real costs of our aims? Or are we simply not interested in anything that has to do with economics?

Be that as it may, as systems of marine protected areas are expanded, they are more likely to be implemented if governments and organisations working and investing in conservation have realistic estimates of the costs of establishing and effectively manage MPAs. They need to be able to calculate and include in their budgets the actual costs of protecting our oceans and be able to identify when further funding needs to be sought. Failure to do so may lead to MPAs that exist only on maps and legislation but do not function as protected areas due to insufficient funding, a problem that many MPAs are currently suffering worldwide.  Knowing and understanding the costs of MPAs, and not only their benefits, is crucial if we are to have effective marine protected areas. Moreover, it could potentially help managers to figure out how to design cheaper but effective MPAs and manage them more efficiently.

 The author Paula Roig Boixeda is a postgraduate student in the Master of International Nature Conservation taught jointly at Lincoln University and University of Göttingen. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.


For more information: U.A. Rojas-Nazar, R. Cullen, J.P.A. Gardner, J.J. (2015) Marine reserve establishment and on-going management costs: A case study from New Zealand. Marine Policy 60, 216-224.






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