Marine Protected Areas expose significant links between socioeconomic and ecological variables kept from sight in unprotected areas.

Supervisor: Mikel Becerro (CSIC, Blanes).
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have become a cornerstone of marine conservation. MPAs positive effects on species and ecosystems are widespread and abundant but, unfortunately, not comprehensively consistent and reliable. Recent research suggests that the relationship between social, environmental, and ecological factors is often behind the success or failure of protected areas. These social-ecological relationships are critical to preserve the wide range of ecosystem services that are essential to our individual wellbeing and societal sustainability. We designed this research to better understand the patterns behind social-ecological interactions in marine rocky reefs. We collected environmental, ecological, and social data from 56 locations distributed over four Coastal Marine Socioecological Systems of the Mediterranean coast of Andalusia (southern Spain). Sampling locations included both protected and non-protected areas. A total of 18 variables (6 social, 6 environmental, and 6 ecological variables) were quantified. We used two complementary approaches based on multivariate and univariate statistical techniques to test whether i) social, environmental, and ecological conditions varied as a function of protection, ii) Coastal Marine Socioecological Systems, or iii) their interaction. These hypotheses tested, respectively, for i) MPA efficiency (defined as the effect size of protection), ii) geography, and iii) protection reliability (effect of protection depended on geography). We also tested whether iv) the social-environmental and ecological conditions were related, and v) protection modulated such relationship. The output of both approaches was equivalent The effect of protection in the ecological condition was unreliable and varied as a function of the Coastal Marine Socioecological Systems. As expected, socio-environmental conditions followed the same pattern. Yet, we found a lack of association between social-environmental and ecological systems. This lack of association was driven by non-protected areas as we found a significant association between the social-environmental and the ecological systems within MPAs. Univariate approach did provide evidence for significant lower ecological conditions in protected than in non-protected areas. Our data support for inefficient MPAs in Andalusia, perhaps because the low number of the most effective no-take zones. Overall, our data provided evidence for a not so discussed benefit of protection. Protected zones uncovered significant links between social, environmental, and ecological variables that were unnoticed because the influence of non-protected areas. These relationships suggest a negative anthropogenic effect on the ecological conditions that may dilute otherwise true ecological patterns. Whether our results are widespread remain unknown, but our study might open opportunities to increase our understanding of natural systems and our impact on them by considering protected and non-protected areas independently.