The expansion of coastal marine protected areas can suffer from two key drawbacks: (a) the difficulty of incentivizing local communities to manage areas for conservation when their livelihoods also depend on resource use; and (b) the frequent placement of protected areas where extractive uses pose little threat or in locations with limited value for either biodiversity conservation or livelihoods.

In a new paper led by Patrick Smallhorn-West and published in Conservation Letters, we discuss and analyze key characteristics of Tonga’s Special Management Area program and how it has successfully navigated these potential limitations. We provide background information about the program, and discuss both the mechanisms that have motivated its successful national expansion and its ability to configure no-take reserves in areas that are considered to have high value to resource users.

Granting communities exclusive access zones, known locally as Special Management Areas (SMAs) in exchange for implementing no-take reserves has encouraged conservation actions while fostering long-term resource management. Ensuring no-take reserves are situated within the boundaries of exclusive access zones has enabled communities to protect areas of greater extractive values than would otherwise have been the case. We conclude that the success of this program offers a way forward for achieving targets in the global expansion marine protected areas.

FIGURE 1 Conceptualization of Tonga’s Special Management Area (SMA) program. The top row represents the state prior to the implementation of the program, including problems with open access systems and factors preventing successful conservation efforts. The middle row represents the SMA program, with the expected outcomes of the SMAs and Fish Habitat Reserves. The bottom three boxes represent key mechanisms by which the SMA program has avoided problems that have constrained the effectiveness of other protected areas.

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