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Defining Cost-Effective Solutions in Designing Marine Protected Areas, Using Systematic Conservation Planning

Frontiers in Marine Science


Environmental conservation is currently one of the main objectives of marine management. It is agreed that effective management requires evaluating the tradeoffs between protection and economic costs for negatively impacted maritime activities. For these reasons, integrated approaches combining ecological and socio-economic aspects are needed to achieve nature conservation and sustainability targets. Here, we present an approach to identify cost-effective priority marine areas for protection through a Systematic Conservation Planning method, adopting the Basque Country as case study (SE Bay of Biscay). Eight protection scenarios were defined, targeting a combination of protection features: benthic habitats, biological value of cetaceans, birds, macroalgae, and macroinvertebrates, potential provision of ecosystem services, and habitat sensitivity to human activities. In turn, the total fishing pressure produced by artisanal fisheries was adopted as a measure of the socio-economic costs of protection (assuming, for this research, that fishing would be banned in the protected areas). The results indicated that existing marine protected areas (MPAs) were very close to achieving prescribed protection targets, while these targets could be achieved by increasing the size of the existing MPAs. Higher costs were associated with the declaration of areas that were targeting a larger number of protection features. Nevertheless, cost/effectiveness was higher in these cases, with the environmental benefits outweighing a comparatively smaller increase in cost. However, the most costeffective scenarios were those that included the extension of already existing MPAs. The method implemented can assist managers and decision makers in identifying conservation gaps and ecosystem components that require special attention. In addition, the approach can be used to develop management strategies that may be adopted under different protection scenarios. Thus, the approach proposed here could be used to inform ecosystem-based marine spatial planning.

Application in MSP:
Type of Issue:
Type of practice:
Stage of MSP cycle:
Cross-border / trans-national aspect:
Coherence with other processes:
Key words:

Questions this practice may help answer:

  • Why should the Systematic Conservation Planning method be used?
  • How can Systematic Conservation Planning help to identify cost-effective priorities?
  • How can integrative approaches, combining ecological and socio-economic dimensions, support marine management?

Implementation Context:

The objective of environmental management is to protect marine habitats and biodiversity from anthropogenic activities and pressures, which are threatening ocean health.

Aspects / Objectives:

The aim of this paper is to implement a Systematic Conservation Planning method to identify cost-effective priority marine areas based on the Bay of Biscay case study.


The priority areas for protection were Identified by (i) defining the protection target scenarios, (ii) identifying areas to be conserved, according to predefined scenarios, and by comparison with existing protected areas, and (iii) identifying the most robust result, in terms of cost-effectiveness.

Main Outputs / Results:

This study provides a working framework to integrate the existing environmental and human activity data while analysing the consequences of different management options.


This study is based on the Bay of Biscay case study; nevertheless, the method implemented is transferable to another area.

Costs / Funding Source:

This research was supported by the VAPEM project, funded by the Fisheries and Aquaculture Directorate of the Basque Government, and has been performed in the scope of the INTEMARES project. The LIFE IP INTEMARES project is coordinated by the Biodiversity Foundation of the Ministry for the Ecological transition and the Demographic Challenge. It receives financial support from the European Union’s LIFE programme.

Contact person:

Ibon Galparsoro