coral reef and fish

Designing climate resilient marine protected areas


Ninety-eight percent of all Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) will be created in our lifetimes, but those MPAs will not be effective if we do not plan for the fundamental changes in the ocean that are already occurring as a result of climate change. Dramatic shifts in ocean species will accelerate as climate change intensifies, and the human responses to shifting fish stocks will likely pose even greater threats to marine biodiversity than climate change impacts alone. 

In collaboration with Conservation International (CI), this joint effort focuses on establishing climate-relevant zoning and management for MPAs, thus setting the stage for representing all ocean biodiversity in MPAs or other spatially-explicit conservation efforts as species move and productivity changes in response to climate change. Within this overall goal, we are placing special emphasis on identifying critical areas to protect for three unique and highly climate-impacted species groups – marine megafauna, coral reefs, and deep water corals.


In partnership with CI, we are conducting an exhaustive literature review and synthesis of marine biogeography and climate change impacts to marine biodiversity to identify data sources and gaps. We are working with CI to partner with high capacity teams on the ground to (a) provide relevant data, (b) fill data gaps through theoretical advances, and (c) make existing data more usable to scientists, governments, and managers.

We are collaborating with the world’s leading marine climate change, MPA, fisheries, and economic experts to hold a series of 3 ecological working groups to resolve key science issues facing MPA implementation under climate change.

The products of the two activities above will then be applied to analyses of spatial planning and climate change where implementation partners are working with governments to create new MPAs or improve the management of existing ones. Where appropriate, we may recommend complementary geographies to initial selections, spatial plans (e.g., location of no-take zones), and/or management actions to make MPA sites robust to climate change.

Key findings

To understand the extent to which MPAs are being designed and managed to best withstand impacts from climate change, we conducted a global review of 172 management plans spanning 555 MPAs from 52 countries and written in 9 languages. We found that MPA management overwhelmingly includes key principles for building climate change resilience, even when “climate change” isn't explicitly mentioned. 

  • The majority of management plans mentioned climate change (78.5%), but only around half included management strategies explicitly included to deal with climate change impacts (48.5%).
  • However, MPA management plans overwhelmingly include key principles for building resilience, even when “climate change” isn’t explicitly mentioned. In particular, management plants include long-term objectives (93.6%), threat-reduction strategies (99.4%), monitoring programs (97.7%), and adaptive management (93%). 
  • Our review also allows us to highlight climate resilient strategies that are being underutilized for MPA management – such as conducting thorough assessments – to identify opportunities to improve existing management practices in the face of climate change.


This project is in collaboration with Conservation International (CI) as part of the Arnhold UC Santa Barbara-Conservation International Climate Solutions Collaborative. UCSB and CI launched this initiative through generous support from John Arnold (UCSB '75) to unify their demonstrated expertise and networks to conduct cutting-edge applied research to yield tangible, progressive solutions and propel the careers of emerging environmental professionals. This collaboration was intentionally designed to gather information that would be immediately actionable and useful for real world MPA management.