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Micheli, F., and F. Niccolini. 2013. Achieving success under pressure in the conservation of intensely used coastal areas. Ecology and Society 18(4): 19.

Achieving Success under Pressure in the Conservation of Intensely Used Coastal Areas

1Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, California, USA, 2Department of Economics, University of Macerata, Macerata, Italy


Understanding how biological conservation and socioeconomic development can be harmonized in social-ecological systems is at the core of sustainability science. We present the case of a Mediterranean marine protected area (MPA), the Tavolara-Punta Coda Cavallo MPA, that exhibits high ecological performance under intense pressure from fishing, tourism, and coastal development. This case study illustrates how socioeconomic development and significant conservation benefits can coexist, even in a challenging context. Based on this case study, we present a framework for what elements and interactions have determined the high ecological performance of this MPA, and highlight the key leverages that have enabled ecosystem recovery. In particular, the most critical elements underlying high performance were sufficient leadership and knowledge to identify a conservation vision and to catalyze some key actors in the implementation of this vision. Thus, success was ultimately determined by the ability of the leadership of the MPA to devise and implement an effective strategy, with the support and participation of key actors that were external to the MPA organization. The insights from this case study may be applicable to improving MPA management in other systems with similar characteristics, including high human pressures and the presence of an MPA authority.
Key words: conservation performance; marine protected areas; Mediterranean; social-ecological systems; Tavolara-Punta Coda Cavallo MPA; Visionary Organization


Ecosystems worldwide are in decline, with consequent economic and social losses for local and global human communities (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). In recent years, there has been increasing awareness and appreciation that the persistence of ecosystems and human well-being can be achieved only by maintaining critical links between the ecological and human components of coupled social-ecological systems (SESs) (Berkes and Folke 1998). Focusing on whole SESs is crucial for understanding change, e.g., biodiversity loss and decreasing food security, and for guiding policy and governance transformations for reversing these changes and increasing the resilience of SESs to current and future pressures (e.g., Gordon and Enfors 2008, Carpenter et al. 2009).

Protected areas constitute an important approach to promoting healthier ecosystems and more responsible socioeconomic development within SESs. In the marine environment, 5880 marine protected areas (MPAs) had been established globally by 2010, which covered 1.17% of the world’s oceans (Fox et al. 2012). Nations worldwide are striving to expand protection towards the target set by the Convention on Biological Diversity of protecting at least 10% of each ecoregion by 2020 (Fox et al. 2012).

Despite a large body of evidence that MPAs can provide significant benefits (Gell and Roberts 2003, Micheli et al. 2004, 2012, Worm et al. 2006, Mascia et al. 2010, McCook et al. 2010), studies have also highlighted continued diversity loss (Jones et al. 2004, Graham et al. 2008, Mora and Sale 2011) and negative impacts on local marine users (Christie et al. 2003, Hilborn et al. 2004, Mascia et al. 2010). Thus, even though examples of success in achieving conservation and socioeconomic targets exist (Alcala and Russ 2006, McCook et al. 2010), there are many failures. MPA performance needs to be improved in order to halt environmental and socioeconomic decline (Mora and Sale 2011).

The marine governance and management transformations needed to reverse such decline have proven to be extremely difficult to achieve (Lambin 2005, Gelcich et al. 2010). This is due to many reasons, including the complexity and nonlinearity of feedbacks within SESs; a lack of political will, financial and human resources, and legal authority to support transformation; weak or missing institutions; and poor public support (Crowder et al. 2006, Gelcich et al. 2010). Meeting these challenges requires analyses of the key elements that underlie positive transformations in the cases where these have occurred. Unfortunately, in contrast to the frequent documentation of failure, analyses of successful case studies are not common in the literature (but see Alcala and Russ 2006, Olsson et al. 2008, Gelcich et al. 2010, Micheli et al. 2012). This limits our ability to learn about good practice examples that may be applicable to improving marine governance and management.

We analyze the case of a superperformer (Guerra 2005), a Mediterranean MPA that has achieved a high ecological performance despite major human pressures within the region. This case study demonstrates that success can be achieved, even under intense pressure, if key leverages are in place. These include the processes, actors, and organizational elements that enable shifts away from ecological and social decline, and towards ecosystem recovery and responsible socioeconomic development. Thus, key leverages can set SESs on a path towards a high ecological, social, and economic performance. Based on our analysis of this case study, we identify key leverages that have supported high ecological performance, and propose a conceptual framework for MPA management in intensely used areas. Applying this framework may guide improvements in other systems with similar characteristics.

Marine protected areas as complex social-ecological systems

MPAs worldwide can conceptually follow three fundamentally different models (Fig. 1), though these models represent extremes along a gradient of possible outcomes. Some MPAs minimize direct human influences on ecosystems by protecting remote areas or by strictly enforcing no-take/no-access regulations (Fig. 1a). For example, Palmyra atoll, in the central Pacific Ocean, is a highly effective MPA that is removed from direct human influences and uses because of its remote location and historical lack of human settlements (Stevenson et al. 2007). In the establishment of these MPAs, social and natural systems were viewed as separate, and in fact the goal was to maintain the natural system removed and insulated from human influences. These MPAs play an important conservation role but are generally impossible to establish in intensely used seascapes, or they require major investments in enforcement (Fraschetti et al. 2009).

In most cases, natural and human systems are not separated or separable, but these settings can differ in how the human-natural interactions are managed. Many MPAs (Fig. 1b) are effectively paper parks, where the human-natural interaction is not mediated by effective institutions and results in resource overexploitation and user conflict. In fact, many MPAs do not provide measurable ecological or socioeconomic benefits (for example, Abdulla et al. 2008, Mora and Sale 2011). Following Ostrom (2005), by institution we refer to the rules, norms, values, and strategies that people use to organize their interactions. In a third scenario (Fig. 1c), an MPA Authority (MPAA) or other local informal and formal institutions (McCay and Jones 2011) act as the mediator of the complex and dynamic interactions between the natural and the social system. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has been highlighted as highly effective in mediating natural-human interactions (Olsson et al. 2008, McCook et al. 2010).

In all three models, as well as intermediate types, the MPAA or other institutions may act as an organizational mediator between the socioeconomic actors and the natural environment. However, such mediation is most effective in the last model (Fig. 1c), which creates the conditions to achieve success under pressure. External drivers that are beyond the MPAA management authority and capacity, such as land-based and climatic drivers, may negatively impact all MPA models. However, effective management of the interactions between the social and ecological components of these systems may be able to partly address these external drivers through mitigation and adaptation. We examine the elements and feedbacks that may underlie success by using a Mediterranean case study. Success can be defined and assessed according to multiple objectives: biological, economic, social, and political, which are sometimes compatible, sometimes in conflict (e.g., Hilborn 2007). We selected our case study based on evidence of biological success and examined the circumstances that may underlie the achievement of biological conservation objectives (e.g., Hilborn et al. 2005). Specifically, we investigate the human context of this biological success, and the mechanisms through which behaviors were modified to enable this conservation achievement.

Success under pressure in practice: analysis of a superperformer

Densely populated or intensely used coastal systems present tremendous challenges for reconciling biological conservation with social and economic development. Even when organizations with a conservation mission (e.g., MPAAs) are in place, they often fail to achieve their goals because of intense and escalating pressures from multiple users and sectors (Hilborn et al. 2004, Mora and Sale 2011). The ultimate test of whether positive conservation outcomes can be achieved under pressure can come only from intensely used coastal areas. Thus, it is especially important to identify examples of success under these challenging settings. Such case studies provide unique opportunities to examine what critical elements explain success, and to apply these insights to promote marine management transformation more broadly.

Mediterranean coastal areas are representative of the conflicts and pressures that influence the performance of coastal SESs in many densely populated regions of the world. Human pressure on Mediterranean marine and coastal ecosystems is tremendously high due to the presence of densely populated coastlines, particularly in the summer months (450 million people in the Mediterranean countries, supplemented by an additional 220 million tourists [UNEP 2005]), intense fishing pressure (Coll et al. 2011), extremely high numbers of invasive species (Molnar et al. 2008), and impacts from climate change (Lejeusne et al. 2010). Recent analyses of the cumulative impacts of human activities in the Mediterranean have ranked its ecoregions among the most heavily impacted worldwide (Halpern et al. 2008) and have characterized this marine region as “under siege” (Coll et al. 2011). Such intense pressure has resulted in major alterations of Mediterranean ecosystems and widespread conflict among marine users (Lotze et al. 2006, Airoldi and Beck 2007, Abdulla et al. 2008, Ferretti et al. 2008).

More than 100 MPAs covering 0.4% of the Mediterranean already exist (Fig. 2) (Abdulla et al. 2008), and more are planned to meet the Convention for Biological Diversity’s target of 10% protected by 2020. However, most Mediterranean MPAs fail to achieve their conservation goals. Decline in key habitats and species is reported for most MPAs (Abdulla et al. 2008). This is explained partly by widespread inadequate capacity: nearly two-thirds of MPAs lack management plans and have insufficient infrastructure and resources (Abdulla et al. 2008).

These Mediterranean-wide trends were supported by a field assessment of the efficacy of Italian MPAs, which documented positive effects on coastal fish assemblages in only four of 15 reserves examined (Guidetti et al. 2008), and thus indicated that most existing MPAs are paper parks (Fig. 1b). Three of the four effective MPAs—Miramare, Torre Guaceto, and Portofino (established in 1986, 1991, and 1998, and measuring 120, 2227, and 346 ha, respectively) have made significant investments in enforcement of no-take regulations (Fig. 1a). Thus, high enforcement levels were proposed as the mechanism for achieving the MPAs’ conservation goal of recovering depleted populations (Guidetti et al. 2008). However, the fourth system, the Tavolara-Punta Coda Cavallo (TPCC) MPA (established in 1997, with a total surface area of 15,537 ha), in northeastern Sardinia, Italy (Fig. 2), does not rank high in enforcement level and yet has the highest biological performance relative to nearby reference areas and all other MPAs, both in terms of total fish biomass and abundance and size of top predators (di Franco et al. 2009, Sala et al. 2012).

The TPCC also ranked highest in fish biomass in a comparison of 32 MPAs and unprotected locations throughout the Mediterranean, with total biomass 1.3–31 times greater than the other locations examined (Sala et al. 2012). Total fish biomass in the TPCC is three times greater than the average of the 12 other Mediterranean MPAs surveyed, and 6.7 times greater than the average of 19 unprotected sites (Sala et al. 2012). One possible interpretation of this result is that the TPCC is a highly productive area that supports abundant fish populations independently of protection. However, comparisons of fish abundance before and after effective protection began show that the large biomass of fish in the TPCC can be attributed to protection, not to unique environmental conditions at this site. In particular, the densities of dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus), a large predatory fish commonly targeted by recreational and commercial fishing, showed an average increase of six to11 times, depending on the habitat type considered, within the no-take zones but not outside (Guidetti et al. 2007). The TPCC also has low abundances of alien species, and relatively healthy benthic communities (Ceccherelli et al. 2006, Sala et al. 2012). Despite high Mediterranean-wide mortality of benthic invertebrates from recent heat waves, reef communities below 25–30 m depth remain healthy and diverse (Cerrano et al. 2000, Garrabou et al. 2009, Huete-Stauffer et al. 2011). The presence of such high abundance of large fishes and rich benthic communities attracts more than 10,000 recreational divers each year, with an estimated total value of the diving sector of US$17,988,900 per year (Niccolini and Marzo 2009). Scuba diving activity is common in the other effective MPAs, but the TPCC has the highest number of scuba diving operators.

The socioeconomic context of the TPCC MPA is typical of the Mediterranean basin. Thus, this ecological success has been achieved despite tremendous human pressure, including the proximity to industrial areas and commercial fishing harbors (Olbia and Golfo Aranci), and the presence of intensely developed coastlines (e.g., the heavily developed Emerald Coast to the north of the TPCC MPA, which provides a cultural model of unsustainable high-end lifestyle that local youth are attempting to emulate [Niccolini and Del Principe 2008]).

To elucidate what factors and processes may underlie the high ecological performance of the TPCC MPA, we conducted a detailed analysis of this case study, including interviews with diverse stakeholder groups (Appendices 1–2). Our goal was to use the case of this superperformer to identify key leverages that lead to high MPA performance and which may be acted upon in other systems.


Analysis of the socioeconomic and cultural context of the TPCC MPA was aimed at identifying the main linkages and feedbacks between the social and ecological components of the system. The goal was to identify the social, demographic, economic, and cultural factors that influence the performance of the MPA in terms of its environmental conservation goals. Specifically, our analysis focused on (1) the sectors and stakeholders that may affect the ecological condition of the MPA (e.g., coastal development, fishing), and (2) the perceptions and attitudes of different stakeholder groups with respect to the MPA and its conservation vision. We aimed to identify both the factors that explain the documented biological success of the MPA and the opportunities for additional actions aimed at improving the MPA performance in the future.

A series of indicators was selected to describe and quantify the social, economic, and cultural dimensions of the stakeholders’ interaction with the MPA (Table 1). To assess the level of public support of the MPA, we selected indicators that measured the awareness, support, and expectation of the MPA, and the general environmental orientation of different sectors and stakeholder groups. We selected additional indicators to assess the perceived or actual impacts of fishing, coastal development, and tourist visitation (Table 1). Some indicators likely have direct influences on MPA performance (e.g., awareness of the existence and role of the MPA, and general environmental orientation of residents and entrepreneurs). In contrast, other indicators (e.g., general demographic and economic indicators) were considered to have smaller direct influence on the MPA performance but to provide contextual information that was important for interpreting results for the other indicators (Table 1). Values of basic socioeconomic and demographic indicators were obtained from published statistics, while for most indicators, data were collected through interviews (Table 1, Appendices 1–6).

Interviews were conducted first with 13 key informants who were selected based on their deep knowledge of the MPA and local communities (e.g., one of the people who had played a key role in the establishment of the MPA, a local underwater photographer and naturalist, school teachers, a local resident well known for his social commitment and volunteer work). Second, unstructured interviews were conducted with the MPA staff to identify potential strengths and weaknesses of this organization. Third, structured interviews were conducted with a broad suite of stakeholders (Appendix 1). To capture the main social-ecological linkages and feedbacks within this system, stakeholders were divided into three categories according to the level of interaction and mutual influence with the other socioeconomic subsystems, the ecological system, and the MPAA (Fig. 3). “Key stakeholders” were actors with strong influence on and frequent interaction with the human and natural components of the MPA. Among these, we identified (1) key entrepreneurs, subdivided into scuba diving operators, local small-scale fishermen (targeting primarily lobster and multiple finfish species), and boat rental operators; and (2) key tourists, i.e., scuba divers and sailors. “Relevant stakeholders” were actors that had some interaction with and influence on the ecosystems and the MPAA. These comprised (1) relevant entrepreneurs, hotel or restaurant owners, and those working in the service and commerce sectors; and (2) relevant tourists (beach tourists) (Table 1). Other stakeholders may have provided additional useful information but had a low influence on the ecosystem and limited interaction with the MPAA, and therefore were not interviewed.

We conducted 375 in-depth interviews and 2834 short interviews which comprised a small subset of the questions asked in the in-depth interviews (Appendices 1–2). Short interviews were used to stratify the sample for subsequent indepth interviews. All interviews were conducted by one of the authors (FN) and a team of 10 graduate students. The number of interviews was designed to include at least 50% of fishermen and diving centers, 30% of boat rentals, 10% of hotel and restaurant owners, and 5% of service and commerce entrepreneurs in the towns with coastlines within the park (Loiri Porto San Paolo, San Teodoro, and Olbia), based on registers of the Chamber of Commerce.

For each stakeholder group, we determined the frequencies of different answers to each question. Indicator values obtained from published records were compared to regional or national statistics or were evaluated based on their temporal trends (Table 2, Appendices 3–4). Evaluation of key ecological factors was conducted based on published studies. We then conducted an interpretive analysis to identify the most important pressures and leverages, using the qualitative analytical framework of a SWOT analysis, which is a strategic planning method used to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats involved in a project. It entails specifying the objective of the project (i.e., the MPA conservation mission) and identifying the internal strengths and weaknesses (within the MPAA, in this case) and external threats and opportunities (within the broader ecological and social systems) that are favorable or unfavorable to achieving the objective. Each potential threat or opportunity was evaluated through the lens of two factors: its importance (scored as 0: low importance, or 1: high importance), and its magnitude or intensity (on a 0–2 scale). The overall relevance was calculated as the product of these two scores. Strengths and opportunities with high relevance scores were seen as key leverages that have shifted or are capable of shifting the SES on a trajectory towards the conservation and sustainable development vision. We used this qualitative analytical framework to identify the factors that may have underlain the high biological performance of the MPA, and the opportunities for future actions aimed at further improvement of the MPA performance.


Interviews with key informants and MPAA staff highlighted that the TPCC was established as the result of the efforts, in the 1980s–early 1990s, of a few individuals. A crucial change occurred in 2004, seven years after the MPA was established, when the MPAA recruited a new director. The new MPA director in turn recruited competent temporary staff, conducted aggressive fund raising, and established a series of collaborations with social and natural scientists within national and international academic institutions and environmental agencies. Other key actions that were highlighted in interviews included the establishment of collaborations between the MPAA and diving operators and divers (20 operators and thousands of divers), and the setting up of permanent moorings for diving boats within the MPA. The MPAA had also granted the small number of licensed commercial fishermen still operating within this area exclusive access privileges to designated zones within the MPA, and had worked with local schools to establish education programs on environmental sustainability and marine conservation. Based on these interviews, the leadership and competence of MPAA staff, and the scarce resources available to the MPAA were identified as the key strength and weakness, respectively, of the MPAA (Table 3).

Interviews with key and relevant stakeholders identified the presence of stakeholders that are strongly supportive of the MPA and the MPAA mission as important factors underlying the success of the MPA (Tables 2–3, Appendices 3–7). In particular, most recreational scuba divers and recreational sailors, and to a lesser extent, beach tourists, were aware of the existence of the MPA (Table 2, Appendix 4), and they revealed a distinct preference for eco- and wilderness tourism compared to luxury or mass tourism (Table 2, Appendix 3), ranked indicators of high environmental quality of the MPA as the attributes that draw them to this location (Table 2, Appendix 5), and showed a high degree of loyalty (94% sailors, 74% divers, and 70% beach tourists had been in the TPCC MPA at least once before [Appendix 6]). Fishermen were also overall supportive of the MPA. Most interviewees supported the role of the MPA in enforcing environmental protection and addressing human impacts on the local ecosystems, and saw the MPAA as an ally in protecting their resources and activity (Table 2).

A review of socioeconomic indicators revealed worrisome trends of high diffusion of drugs and high youth delinquency (Tables 2–3) as a major social issue and threat to the SES. Interviews with key and relevant stakeholders also identified the limited knowledge and appreciation of natural resources and of the MPA, particularly among the younger generation, and a lack of environmental awareness and knowledge of the MPA among relevant entrepreneurs as key threats (Tables 2–3). Multiple key informants also stated that addressing such a lack of appreciation for the natural environment among the younger generations is critical. A key opportunity, in this regard, is the high educational potential of the local population, characterized by an age structure that is shifted towards young cohorts (15.8% of individuals between 2 and 17 years of age, a proportion that is significantly greater than the regional and national average) (Tables 2–3).

A key threat to the SES is also the highly seasonal tourism influx during the summer months, and consequent concentration of income during a small fraction of the year, overcrowding, and pressure to develop the coastline to accommodate tourism demand (Tables 2–3). In particular, San Teodoro has one of the highest ratios of nonresidential/residential homes in Italy, which is indicative of the importance of the tourism sector, and local plans anticipate rapid additional development within the MPA over the next years (Tables 2–3, Appendix 4). These results confirm our expectation of a system under intense pressure from human use and coastal development.

Previous ecological studies had identified the impacts of fishing on fish and benthic communities, the impacts of coastal development on water quality and benthic habitat, and the high mortality of gorgonian corals from recent heat waves as major threats to key ecosystem components (Table 3). These studies also highlighted some opportunities to conserve benthic species in spatial refuges, particularly, generally high water quality away from coastal developments, and refuges from the impacts of heat waves at depth (Micheli, unpublished data, Cerrano et al. 2000, Garrabou et al. 2009) (Table 3). These factors, in addition to the documented recovery of target fish species and current high biomass levels, are key contributors to the high ecological performance of the MPA.


Good leadership and involvement of key partners have been the crucial mechanisms for the positive outcomes in the TPCC MPA. We propose that, for MPAs that have similar characteristics to our case study (e.g., intense human use of the coastal environment and the presence of a formal MPAA that is responsible for the management of the MPA), success may be determined by the ability of the leadership of an MPAA to devise and implement an effective strategy with the support and participation of stakeholders that are external to the MPAA. Effective evaluation of the SES that informs such actions requires partnerships and collaborations between the MPAA, scientists, and stakeholders (e.g., Castilla 1999, Alcala and Russ 2006). Thus, we propose that a multi-actor governance framework may be a key element of MPA effectiveness more generally. In this case study, it was the MPAA leadership that catalyzed participation and enabled the development of a multi-actor governance framework (e.g., Osborne and Gaebler 1992, Milne et al. 1996, Gerencser et al. 2008). In turn, multi-actor participation strengthened and legitimized the MPAA. These two elements acted synergistically, with each one enabling the other (Fig. 1c).

Multi-actor participation was catalyzed by the MPAA through specific actions aimed at enlisting the support and participation of specific stakeholder groups. In an intensely developed context, such as the northern Mediterranean coastlines, recreational scuba divers and eco-tourists can become important key actors in shifting the tourism sector towards more responsible environmental practices. In the TPCC MPA, enlistment of scuba divers as allies of the MPAA has led to improved monitoring within the MPA, and to a level of control and enforcement of no-take regulations, particularly at the offshore sites, that would have been beyond the MPAA capacity. Scuba divers became not only key stakeholders but also allies that act as on-site informal wardens, thereby helping the MPA achieve its conservation goals. Similarly, granting local fishermen exclusive access privileges to designated zones within the MPA has created incentives for compliance and additional patrolling within the MPA, outside of the tourism season. While the effects of this action were not directly assessed for the TPCC MPA, a similar initiative was formally evaluated in the Torre Guaceto MPA in southern Italy, and was found to have produced significant ecological and economic benefits (Guidetti and Claudet 2010).

The TPCC MPAA is committed to further expanding the diffusion of its conservation vision through outreach and collaboration with stakeholders. Interviews identified the limited awareness and support of the MPA among local youth and entrepreneurs as key threats to the MPA. Thus, a recommendation from the SWOT analysis was to specifically target education of these categories of stakeholders (Appendix 8). In response to this suggestion, the MPAA has created a multimedia information center in the area of the main neighboring city that is most intensely visited by local youth, with the goal of increasing support for the MPA role and mission, and to support broader environmental education of the social component of this SES.

Based on the TPCC MPA case study, we propose a framework that summarizes the important organizational elements for how MPAAs may effectively mediate interactions between the ecological and socioeconomic components of the SES (Fig. 1c), and we identify key leverages that may most strongly influence MPA performance (indicated by the triangles, Fig. 4). We stress, however, that this framework is not prescriptive nor necessarily linear. Success may be achieved through different avenues, through a different sequence and combination of the stages we summarize in this framework, or through entirely different processes. Applying this framework to other systems requires its adaptation to local circumstances and conditions. In particular, institutions other than an MPAA may mediate social-ecological interactions in some settings.

The development trajectory of an MPA often begins with an original vision (Step 1 [S1], Fig. 4). A vision is the description of the future that we decide to create (Senge 2006). Other authors (Collins and Porras 1994, 1996) give a broader meaning to the concept of vision by including the core purpose and the core values of an organization. The original vision needs an enactor to become a reality. For example, the first U.S. National Parks, such as Yosemite or Yellowstone, originated from the vision of individuals like Frederick Hayden and John Muir. Similarly, MPA envisioners make significant efforts to establish protected areas and associated organizations with a coherent mission (S2, Fig. 4). The mission is the core purpose of an organization, the reason why an organization exists (Senge 2006). Protected areas are the most common public or nonprofit organizations with a clear mission to conserve nature and associated ecosystem services and cultural values (IUCN 2008). For example, the U.S. National Park Service was created with the explicit mission to “conserve natural and historical objects and the wildlife...for future generations” (United States Public Law 1916). Similarly, the MPAAs’ mission is the long-term protection of the environment and associated services and cultural values (Kelleher 1999).

In order to function, and thus to achieve its conservation mission, the MPAA needs sufficient human and financial resources (S3, Fig. 4). Adequate resources are critical to the functioning of the MPAA and elements that can be acted upon to improve performance. To be effective, MPAAs need a permanent, competent staff and a substantial amount of financial resources. These resources are not available to most MPAAs, especially in the present economic crisis and in developing nations (Siikamaki 2011). Consequently, a critical leverage is an effective leadership that can act strategically on other elements. Specifically, a lack of public funds may be compensated for through fundraising with nongovernmental organizations, agencies, and private donors. Similarly, when an MPAA cannot hire competent permanent staff, carefully selected temporary staff and even volunteers can be highly effective.

With strong leadership and sufficient human and financial resources, the MPAA can develop a strategy for achieving a conservation and responsible development vision (S4, Fig. 4). The key leverages in developing an effective strategy are an identification of ecological and social targets of actions, and, as the next step, the successful involvement of partners to implement such actions. Key targets may include (1) the stakeholder groups that have an interest in the operation of the MPA and that significantly influence or are influenced by the ecosystem condition, and (2) the ecosystem components that the MPAA can influence through its management actions, or that can raise interest and catalyze the involvement of stakeholder groups (e.g., Fig. 3). Although the MPAA plays a unique role in activating the improvement process, it often has a small fraction of the needed resources to implement the required actions. To achieve positive change, the MPAA needs to enlist allies who participate in and support the strategic activities: users who, for cultural and/or economic reasons, share particular aspects of the MPAA vision. The MPAA can identify and plan specific strategies with each key partner category. These include monitoring and studies aimed at identifying priorities for management actions that can be designed and implemented in partnership with academic researchers, information campaigns with nongovernmental organizations, and ecotourism projects developed with the private sector.

As a result of the successful involvement of diverse partners and the implementation of strategic actions with each (S5, Fig. 4), the conservation and responsible development vision, originally formulated by one or few individuals, is now shared beyond the MPAA. Diverse actors collectively support and inform the core strategy initially developed by the MPAA, legitimize and therefore strengthen the organization itself, and contribute to improved social and ecological well-being within the SES (S6, Fig. 4).

Studies that have focused on successful examples of marine governance transformations in the Philippines (Alcala and Russ 2006), Australia (Olsson et al. 2008), Mexico (McCay et al., 2013), and Chile (Castilla 1999, Gelcich et al. 2010) have also highlighted key elements that underlie positive shifts. These include the presence of a window of opportunity for policy change that emerges from the failure of previous policies (Gelcich et al. 2010). However, enabling legislations, such as the establishment of MPAs, though essential, are not sufficient (Olsson et al. 2008). These case studies and our Mediterranean example show how strong but flexible institutions (e.g., the Great Barrier Reef and TPCC MPAAs, and the fishing communities and cooperatives of the Philippines, Mexican, and Chilean cases) are crucial in initiating transformation and providing leadership through the improvement process. Key steps include (1) the organization of functioning institutions, (2) increasing public awareness of the issues, and (3) an ability to involve a broader set of stakeholders. Another common element of these successful cases is (4) an effective incorporation of scientific knowledge and new insights, which both motivate policy change and guide the improvement process. Importantly, case studies highlighted to date suggest that successful models may be scalable from local (e.g., this study) to regional (e.g., Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) extents.

One limitation of analysis of SESs is that controlled experiments do not exist. Outcomes are always the result of complex, context-dependent, and historically and culturally determined suites of interactions that cannot be dissected in simple ways. However, by analyzing multiple case studies, broadly distributed across different socioeconomic contexts and ecoregions, we can continue to build a collective understanding of the dynamics of complex SESs.

Multidisciplinary analyses have improved our understanding of MPA performance (e.g., Pomeroy et al. 2004, Pollnac and Pomeroy 2005, Hilborn 2007, McClanahan et al. 2011). In applying these results to support and inform effective future management of SESs, it is critical to focus on how key elements may interact, particularly how the presence of a specific leverage may trigger other positive outcomes. Institutions may be able to act upon these critical nodes and interactions to set the system on a trajectory towards improvement.

Comprehensive evaluations of SESs are therefore crucial for understanding what conditions can lead to success in marine management. As a recent example, Gutiérrez et al. (2011) used Ostrom’s (2009) framework for the analysis of SESs to identify what attributes of community-based and comanaged fisheries correlate with their performance. This meta-analysis identified strong leadership as the most important factor that contributed to success, followed by individual or community quotas, social cohesion, and protected areas. In support of Gutiérrez et al.’s (2011) findings, our analysis of a high-performing Mediterranean MPA revealed that effective and competent leadership was the most critical element for ensuring sufficient resources and devising and implementing strategic plans with the participation of MPA allies. In the context of our work, the most relevant concepts of leadership view it as a critical factor in the interaction among diverse actors working to achieving specified objectives. Thus, leadership can be defined as a process of social influence where the leader seeks the voluntary participation of all potential partners in an effort to meet certain goals (Schriesheim et al. 1978).

In conclusion, we identify leadership and involvement of partners as key leverages that can set SESs on a pathway towards a high ecological, social, and economic performance, thereby enabling the shift from an original vision of a few individuals to a shared vision of conservation and responsible development. An important result of our analysis is that conservation success can be achieved even under challenging conditions, not only in remote areas characterized by low pressure on the ecosystems. By identifying what conditions and interactions underlie instances of success under pressure, we can focus on and invest in promoting and supporting these leverages in other systems. Continued analysis of successful cases and synthesis of insights into broader frameworks are crucial contributions to sustainability science, and to promoting marine governance and management transformations in practice.


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We are grateful to the Pew Charitable Trusts for financial support, K. Kroeker for preparing the graphics, M. Gomei and A. Navone for their insights and advice, S. Lee and C. Butner for reviewing earlier drafts, S. Cannicci, C. Volpi, D. Racano, D. Spigoli, B. Halpern, K. Selkoe, K. Kroeker, R. Martone, F. Bartolini, D. Marzo, and S. del Principe for participating in field studies, and two anonymous reviewers who provided invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this paper.


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Table1  | Table2  | Table3  | Figure1  | Figure2  | Figure3  | Figure4  | Appendix1  | Appendix2  | Appendix3  | Appendix4  | Appendix5  | Appendix6  | Appendix7  | Appendix8