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Several schemes have been developed to help select the locations of marine reserves. All of them combine social, economic, and biological criteria, and few offer any guidance as to how to prioritize among the criteria identified. This can imply that the relative weights given to different criteria are unimportant. Where two sites are of equal value ecologically, then socioeconomic criteria should dominate the choice of which should be protected. However, in many cases, socioeconomic criteria are given equal or greater weight than ecological considerations in the choice of sites. This can lead to selection of reserves with little biological value that fail to meet many of the desired objectives. To avoid such a possibility, we develop a series of criteria that allow preliminary evaluation of candidate sites according to their relative biological values in advance of the application of socioeconomic criteria. We include criteria that, while not strictly biological, have a strong influence on the species present or ecological processes. Our scheme enables sites to be assessed according to their biodiversity, the processes which underpin that diversity, and the processes that support fisheries and provide a spectrum of other services important to people. Criteria that capture biodiversity values include biogeographic representation, habitat representation and heterogeneity, and presence of species or populations of special interest (e.g., threatened species). Criteria that capture sustainability of biodiversity and fishery values include the size of reserves necessary to protect viable habitats, presence of exploitable species, vulnerable life stages, connectivity among reserves, links among ecosystems, and provision of ecosystem services to people. Criteria measuring human and natural threats enable candidate sites to be eliminated from consideration if risks are too great, but also help prioritize among sites where threats can be mitigated by protection. While our criteria can be applied to the design of reserve networks, they also enable choice of single reserves to be made in the context of the attributes of existing protected areas. The overall goal of our scheme is to promote the development of reserve networks that will maintain biodiversity and ecosystem functioning at large scales. The values of ecosystem goods and services for people ultimately depend on meeting this objective.
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Ecological criteria for evaluating candidate sites for marine reserves