Marine reserves are being established worldwide in response to a growing recognition of the conservation crisis that is building in the oceans. However, designation of reserves has been largely opportunistic, or protective measures have been implemented (often overlapping and sometimes in conflict) by different entities seeking to achieve different ends. This has created confusion among both users and enforcers, and the proliferation of different measures provides a false sense of protection where little is offered. This paper sets out a procedure grounded in current understanding of ecological processes, that allows the evaluation and selection of reserve sites in order to develop functional, interconnected networks of fully protected reserves that will fulfill multiple objectives. By fully protected we mean permanently closed to fishing and other resource extraction. We provide a framework that unifies the central aims of conservation and fishery management, while also meeting other human needs such as the provision of ecosystem services (e.g., maintenance of coastal water quality, shoreline protection, and recreational opportunities). In our scheme, candidate sites for reserves are evaluated against 12 criteria focused toward sustaining the biological integrity and productivity of marine systems at both local and regional scales. While a limited number of sites will be indispensable in a network, many will be of similar value as reserves, allowing the design of numerous alternative, biologically adequate networks. Devising multiple network designs will help ensure that ecological functionality is preserved throughout the socioeconomic evaluation process. Too often, socioeconomic criteria have dominated the process of reserve selection, potentially undermining their efficacy. We argue that application of biological criteria must precede and inform socioeconomic evaluation, since maintenance of ecosystem functioning is essential for meeting all of the goals for reserves. It is critical that stakeholders are fully involved throughout this process. Application of the proposed criteria will lead to networks whose multifunctionality will help unite the objectives of different management entities, so accelerating progress toward improved stewardship of the oceans.
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Application of ecological criteria in selecting marine reserves and developing reserve networks