Designing Marine Protected Areas, or MPAS, can be difficult, and we still have a lot to learn - as beautifully portrayed in the comic above by Anju Sabu.

There are complex and dynamic social-ecological systems that need to be weighed and balanced to create an arrangement of MPAs that best protect the natural environment, and provide for various cultural and economic uses of marine resources.

But, we have come a long way in understanding how to best create this balance, often using spatial planning concepts, which this video by Jennifer McGowan does a superb job at explaining:

However, as scientists, we often like to take simple concepts like targeting representation in MPAs, and make it more complex.

This is described in an Epistle by the conservation planning guru Prof Hugh Possingham:


“The Lame-duck Conservation Principle

Remember the good old days when conservation planning was just two main principles – adequacy and representation? It seems so simple and logical. But at some point we lost sight of the importance of representation, the simple notion of protecting a sample of everything in a well-managed protected area. What happened?

In theory, representation is still at the top of the international conservation agenda, it gets a solid mention in Aichi Target 11, which states:

‘By 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.’

The Nature Conservancy has championed the cause of representation, with representation and resilience forming the core principles of our new protect land and water strategy. But the rest of the world seems to have lost interest.

In my simple mind, The Nature Conservancy is the ‘habitat organisation.’ That is why I joined. We focus on how to make more quality habitat, in all its forms, because it delivers benefits for people and nature. So it is only logical that we always return to a strong focus on habitat representation.

Yet while we continue to keep our eye on the ball, some organisations and groups believe that a focus on threatened species, via Key Biodiversity Areas, is the best way to prioritisation protection. Others are pushing connectivity as the most important conservation principle — let’s connect the Yukon to Yellowstone. I agree that both are important, but still very much secondary to the notion of protecting a representative sample of habitats or ecosystems.

Why are we losing this marketing campaign? In my opinion, representation is on the backburner because it is intellectually a little dull. Connectivity captures the imagination of many scientists, it can be measured by 100 different metrics, while ideas like ‘corridors’ seem to capture the hearts and minds of the public and politicians. I love connectivity, but I am convinced it is a secondary issue. And, of course, threatened species are all so sexy — with their big brown eyes— much sexier than a place like the mallee woodland (my favourite habitat in Australia).

So here’s my challenge to you: Representation is the most boring but important concept in conservation. So how to we make it sexy again?”


I have been thinking of Prof Possingham’s question of how do we make the simple act of targeting representation sexy - and I think the answer comes down to making representation a surrogate for adaptability.

I would argue that nothing is sexier in conservation science at the moment than prioritising areas that are more resilient to climate change. My work specifically looks at areas that are more genetically diverse, and thus assumed to be more resilient to environmental change. And interestingly, there have been several recent publications that suggest that by representing different habitat types (or different species distributions), you are also capturing genetic diversity.

You can find such papers in the links below:

But of course, this is science, so here is this paper arguing the opposite:

I think the argument of representative habitats as surrogates of species and genetic diversity could help bring this elegant practice back in the forefront of conservation planning, but I think it will also require scientists to change our perspective of our work, as to not think about how well our work will publish, but how well it can be applied to ‘real-world’ conservation practice.

So really we need a whole paradigm shift within Academia… but for now let’s just settle with a haiku about representation in conservation planning:


MPA designs,

To make easier target:



Thanks for reading!