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date: 18 January 2021

The Economics of Marine Reserveslocked

  • Venetia Alexa Hargreaves-AllenVenetia Alexa Hargreaves-AllenConservation Research Initiative


Marine protected areas (MPAs) remain one of the principal strategies for marine conservation globally. MPAs are highly heterogeneous in terms of physical features such as size and shape, habitats included, management bodies undertaking management, goals, level of funding, and extent of enforcement. Economic research related to MPAs initially measured financial, gross, and net values generated by the habitats, most commonly fisheries, tourism, coastal protection, and non-use values. Bioeconomic modeling also generated important insights into the complexities of fisheries-related outcomes at MPAs.

MPAs require a significant investment in public funds for design, designation, and ongoing management, which have associated opportunity costs. Therefore cost-benefit analysis has been increasingly required to justify this investment and demonstrate their benefits over time. The true economic value of MPAs is the value of protection, not the resource being protected. There is substantial evidence that MPAs should increase recreational values due to improvements in biodiversity and habitat quality, but assumptions that MPAs will generate such improvements may not be justified. Indeed, there remains no equivocal demonstration of spillover in fisheries adjacent to MPAs, due in part to the variability inherent in ecological and socio-economic processes and limited evidence of tourism benefits that are biologically or socio-cultural sustainable.

There is a need for carefully designed valuation studies that compare values for areas within MPAs compared the same areas without management (the counterfactual scenario). The ecosystem service framework has become widely adopted as a way of characterizing goods and services that contribute directly or indirectly to human welfare. Quantitative analyses of the marginal changes to ecosystem services due to MPAs remains rare due to the requirements of large amounts of fine-grained data, relatively undeveloped bio-physical models for the majority of services, and the complexities of incorporating ecological non-linearities and threshold effects. In addition while some services are synergistic (so that double counting is difficult to avoid), others are traded off. Such marginal ecosystem service values are highly context specific, which limits the accuracy associated with benefits transfer. A number of studies published since 2000 have made advances in this area, and this is a rapidly developing field of research.

While MPAs have been promoted as a sustainable development tool, there is evidence of significant distributive impacts of MPAs over time, over different time scales and between different stakeholders, including unintended costs to local stakeholders. Research suggests that support and compliance is predicated on the costs and benefits generated locally, which is a major determinant of MPA performance. Better understanding of socio-economic impacts will help to align incentives with MPA objectives. Further research is needed to value supporting and regulating services and to elucidate how ecosystem service provision is affected by MPAs in different conditions and contexts, over time and compared to unmanaged areas, to guide adaptive management.

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