Environmental Management

, 47:525

Global Marine Protection Targets: How S.M.A.R.T are They?


    • UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre
    • UBC Fisheries Centre, Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory (AERL), The University of British Columbia

DOI: 10.1007/s00267-011-9668-6

Cite this article as:
Wood, L. Environmental Management (2011) 47: 525. doi:10.1007/s00267-011-9668-6


Global marine protection targets have been criticised for being ecologically irrelevant and often inadequate. However, they may also provide motivation for conservation action. However, no such targets have yet been met, and the health of the marine environment has continued to deteriorate. The Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recently adopted a new marine protection target, in October, 2010. As such, it is timely to critically assess the potential role of this and other global marine protection targets in conservation and marine resource management. Three targets adopted in the past ten years were assessed using the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound) framework. This assessment showed that the targets appear to have evolved to have become ‘SMARTer’ over time, particularly more Specific. The most recent CBD target also appears to be more Achievable than earlier targets. Three broad issues emerged that can inform the potential role, limitations, and challenges associated with global-scale marine protection targets: (i) that SMART target formulation, implementation, monitoring, and revision, is critically underpinned by relevant data and information; (ii) that perceived irrelevance of global targets may be at least partly due to a mismatch between the scale at which the targets were intended to operate, and the scale at which they have sometimes been assessed; and (iii) the primary role of global-scale targets may indeed be psychological rather than ecological. Recent progress indicates some success in this role, which could be built on with further ‘SMARTening’ of targets.


TargetsConvention on Biological DiversityMarine protected areaMarine protectionSMARTNetworks


Large-scale, typically percentage-based, conservation targets have been criticised for being ecologically irrelevant, particularly because they are rarely sufficient to ensure persistence of populations. They may also be political hindrances to further conservation efforts (Soulé and Sanjayan 1998; Agardy and others 2003; Pressey and others 2003; Rodrigues and others 2004). As a consequence, some authors have suggested that ‘policy-driven’ or ‘data-independent’ conservation targets should be abandoned (Solomon and others 2003; Svancara and others 2005; Wiersma and Nudds 2006). Furthermore, even these apparently meagre and inadequate targets have rarely been attained. Large-scale targets are often considered to be over-ambitious, unattainable, and are thus frequently discredited and ignored (Roberts 2005). Existing global marine protection targets seem extremely unlikely to be met on time, instead reaching only a fraction of the target by the deadlines (Wood and others 2008; Spalding and others 2010). Indeed, the new target for marine and coastal protection, which was recently adopted under the new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan, October 2010, remains unchanged from that adopted in 2006 (CBD 2010), in part because of slow progress towards the existing target. Despite the many declarations, resolutions, conventions and protocols adopted since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 1972, the overall state of the environment has continued to deteriorate (Elliott 1998; Butchart and others 2010). Although large-scale conservation targets may provide overarching frameworks for, and motivate, action at smaller scales (Pressey and others 2003), in the context of marine conservation and protected areas, this has met with variable success. Understanding the limitations of targets for motivating effective and appropriate conservation action thus appears to be a more immediate (and serious) problem than the question of their ecological relevance.

Goal-setting is a fundamental component of human behaviour: goals are expressions of values and needs, and motivate and direct behaviour and performance (Taylor 1976; Latham and Locke 1991; Locke and Latham 2002), at both the individual and group levels (Erez 2005; Latham and Pinder 2005). As such, goals and targets have been incorporated into all scales of planning, in a range of sectors, from formal business plans and local systematic conservation planning efforts, to health services planning, to broader public policy and international regimes (Rondinelli 1976; Mintzberg 1992; Margules and Pressey 2000; Broadhead 2002; Pressey and others 2003; Thomas 2003; United Nations 2006). In broad terms, goals are generalised statements about an ideal state to be attained, and establish the tone for the planning process. Targets refer to specific outputs to be reached in support of goal attainment (Thomas 2003).

Given that targets are integral to planning processes, then, it may be more appropriate in the case of large scale conservation targets to attempt to better understand the reasons for their (a) general lack of uptake and subsequently (b) ecological (ir)relevance, than to abandon them completely. In order to be effective, it is suggested that targets must be operationalisable, measurable, amenable to evaluation, and time-bound with clear deadlines (Thomas 2003). These principles have been embodied in the SMART concept (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). The exact origin of the SMART concept is not known, although it has been applied in fields as varied as policy planning (HM Treasury 2003), healthcare (van Herten and Gunning-Schepers 2000; Busse and Wismar 2002), financial management (Kawohl and others 2003), education (Muncey and McGinty 1998), climate data management (Plummer and others 2005), global plant conservation (CBD 2002), as well as the Millennium Development Goals (Roberts 2005). Recently, it has been gaining traction in the marine conservation literature, particularly in relation to marine protected area (MPA) objective and management effectiveness assessments (Jones 2000; Manghubai 2001; Day and others 2002). At a larger scale, the SMART concept has been incorporated into marine conservation and planning objectives, and assessments thereof, in, for example, Canada (Stark 2004), the Irish Sea (Lumb and others 2004), Europe (Rice and others 2005), and South Australia (Department for Environment and Heritage 2006), as well as in relation to the Convention on Biological Diversity indicators on sustainable use of biodiversity (Tucker 2005). However, to date, the SMART concept has not been explicitly applied to global marine protection targets.

The objective of this study is to assess three global marine protection targets using the SMART framework, and use this assessment in combination with a critical review of the current literature, and experiences in monitoring progress towards them (Wood and others 2008; Spalding and others 2010) to attempt to better understand the challenges to their implementation. The targets to be assessed are: (1) the World Summit on Sustainable Development Plan of Implementation commitment; (2) the Vth World Parks Congress (2003); and (3) the Convention on Biological Diversity (2006 and 2010). The content and scope of these targets are summarised in Table 1, and a summary of the extent to which they could be considered SMART is provided in Table 2.
Table 1

Table summarising the scope, numerical targets, and deadlines for three

Target name

Date Adopted


Numerical target (%)

Target pertains to:

Original target text, and additional notes

World Summit on Sustainable Development



Global ocean

Section IV, paragraph 32(c): “the establishment of marine protected areas consistent with international law and based on scientific information, including representative networks by 2012” (United Nations, 2002)

World Parks Congress




Global ocean

Recommendation 5.22: “Establish by 2012 a global system of effectively managed, representative networks of marine and coastal protected areas….. these networks should be extensive and include strictly protected areas that amount to at least 20-30% of each habitat” (IUCN 2003)

Convention on Biological Diversitya

Seventh Conference of the Parties (COP7)



Areas under national jurisdiction

Decision VII/28 (Goal 1.1 Target): “By 2010, terrestrially 6/ and 2012 in the marine area, a global network of comprehensive, representative and effectively managed national and regional protected area system is established…”

Eighth Conference of the Parties (COP8)




Suggested activity 1.1.1 of the Parties under this target was to “By 2006, establish suitable time-bound and measurable national and regional level protected area targets and indicators.” (CBD 2007)

Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10)




Decision VIII/15: “at least 10% of each of the world’s ecological regions [including marine and coastal be] effectively conserved [by 2012]” (CBD 2006)





Decision X/2 (Target 11): “By 2020, at least … 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas…are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.” (CBD 2010)

aA marine protection target was first adopted in 2006 at COP8. This was revised in October 2010 at COP10; however, due to slow progress in achieving the target adopted at COP8, the target remained unchanged aside from the deadline being extended. At the time of writing, no elaborated guidance has yet been published to further inform a SMART assessment of the 2010 target. As such, assessment of how SMART the CBD target(s) are is presented together

bThere has always been some confusion about the deadline for the COP8 MPA target, because it formed part of the overall CBD 2010 Biodiversity Target, whose deadline was 2010. Progress towards the MPA target was indeed reported on in 2010 at COP10. However, most of the text elaborating on the 2010 biodiversity targets specifies that the deadline is 2012 in the marine and coastal environment, because the proportion of marine area protected was so small at the time of target adoption (<0.5%)

Table 2

Summary of the extent to which global marine protection targets could be considered SMART

Target name






Definition of MPA

Representative features

Network characteristics

Management effectiveness


Information available


World Summit on Sustainable Development

World Parks Congress

Convention on Biological Diversity

 Eighth Conference of the Parties (COP8)

 Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10)

Open circles no, half circles partially, full circles yes. Target. Further explanation is provided in the text

Global Marine Protection Targets: Are They Specific?

Specific targets are clear and easy to understand, i.e. well defined, and are therefore more readily accepted by those implementing them (van Herten and Gunning-Schepers 2000). Specific targets also help to direct behaviour towards a reduced number of potential outcomes, such that behaviour between actors is more consistent, and ‘effective performance’ is more evident and measurable (Latham and Locke 1991).

All three targets appear to be quite specific: they require ‘MPAs’ to be created in ‘representative networks’ and be ‘effectively managed’. However, definitions of these concepts themselves are still widely debated, which has the potential to hinder their implementation. Some of the ambiguities surrounding the conceptual requirements imposed by the targets are summarized below.

What is an MPA?

The definition of an MPA varies in both the literature and in practice with such attributes as the objectives of the MPA; the human activities (both extractive and non-extractive) regulated both within and outside it; and the effectiveness with which those regulations are implemented. MPA regulations currently range from complete exclusion of human presence, to complex multiple use and zoning regulations (Jameson and others 2002; Jones 2002; Agardy and others 2003). As such, perhaps the most critical concept to define in the context of the global targets is what the minimum level of regulation of human activities is required for that ocean space to be considered ‘protected’ and therefore contributing to the target. What, in practical terms, differentiates an MPA from ocean space adjacent to it? This is largely a philosophical question, based on individual conceptualisations of protection, and as such it will always be open to debate (Wood 2007). Furthermore, with marine resource management moving more explicitly towards integrating networks of MPAs within a cohesive ecosystem based approach to management of all marine space, these conceptual boundaries become ever more fuzzy (Kenchington, 2010).

What Should MPAs (and MPA Networks) be Representative of?

Representativeness is a key component of systematic conservation planning, and refers to the inclusion of samples of all of biodiversity within protected areas (Pressey and others 1993; Sarkar and others 2006). However, biodiversity is itself very difficult to define (Sarkar 2005). Incomplete knowledge of the spatial distributions of many aspects of biodiversity means that surrogates must be used in conservation planning exercises. Surrogates may operate at a range of spatial scales and consist of a range of biological (e.g., species and/or habitat distributions or ecoregion classifications) or non-biological features (e.g. depth, latitude, temperature, etc). However, the choice of surrogate used to approximate and measure representativeness depends on the scale of the analysis as well as the available data for the area of interest (Margules and Pressey 2000; Sarkar and others 2006).

What is a ‘Network’ of MPAs?

MPA networks may be conceptualised in a multiplicity of ways. In ecological terms, they consist of MPAs that are connected oceanographically by larval dispersal and juvenile or adult migration (Ballantine 1995; Gaines and others 2003; Lubchenco and others 2003; Palumbi 2003; Norse and Crowder 2005). However, MPA networks may also need to consider and or be defined in terms of: the impacts of the MPA on the spatial redistribution of fishing effort and benefits of fishing (Walters 2000; Sumaila and Armstrong 2006); resilience of the MPAs (or network) over time to external factors and longer term catastrophes (Jameson and others 2002; Wagner and others 2006); the objectives of the MPA or network (Halpern and Warner 2003; Hastings and Botsford 2003); as well as the socio-cultural context of the area and the level of stakeholder support for the MPA or network (Sumaila and others 2000; Walmsley and White 2003).

What is Management Effectiveness of MPAs?

MPA management effectiveness, rather than simple presence and size, is a more a meaningful measure of the ‘actual’ contribution made by MPAs to biodiversity conservation and other objectives because of the many threats to them, such as inadequate regulation of human activities, non-compliance, and a range of external threats (Boersma and Parrish 1999; Jameson and others 2002). Management effectiveness consists of multiple components: design issues of protected areas and networks, appropriateness of management systems and processes, and delivery of protected area objectives (Hockings and others 2000). In addition, many methodologies for measuring MPA management effectiveness exist, ranging in application from global (Pomeroy and others 2004; Staub and Hatziolos 2004) to regional (Wells and Mangubhai 2004), to national or sub-national (Pollnac and others 2001), as well as MPA programme-specific, e.g., World Heritage Sites (Hockings and others 2004).

These brief summaries point to considerable complexity surrounding various concepts embodied in the global marine targets. Some of this complexity and ambiguity is irreducible. But, in pragmatic terms, for monitoring progress in the context of such parameters, these concepts do need to be defined operationally (albeit with assumptions explicitly stated) (Wood 2007). However, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) target does not provide any definition (conceptual or operational) of MPA, network, or representativeness, and it is unclear whether the WSSD target requires MPA networks to be effectively managed, although this may reasonably be assumed. The World Parks Congress (WPC) target is slightly more specific than the WSSD target in that it specifies ‘marine habitats’ as the features to be represented in MPA networks. However, it provides no definitions for MPA, strictly protected MPA, network, habitat, or effective management. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) target is the most specific of the three targets. The report from the CBD Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Marine and Coastal Protected Areas provides a detailed definition of ‘MPA’:

“‘Marine and Coastal Protected Area’ means any defined area within or adjacent to the marine environment, together with its overlying waters and associated flora, fauna, and historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by legislation or other effective means, including custom, with the effect that its marine and/or coastal biodiversity enjoys a higher level of protection than its surroundings” (CBD 2003).

However, additional documentation from the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice to the CBD expands the scope of this definition considerably.

“Other measures, such as fisheries management areas, well-functioning integrated marine and coastal area management regimes (which effectively manage land-based sources of marine pollution), prohibition of destructive practices (such as bottom trawling) may also contribute to effective protection” (CBD 2005).

This expansion of the scope of the CBD target, as suggested at the time (2005) to include a full range of area-based management tools was intended to emphasise the importance of embedding MPAs and networks within an integrated, ecosystem-based approach to management of marine resources (Kenchington (2010) provides a recent summary of perspectives on this). However, the area-based management measures mentioned in the guidance are described in very broad terms, with implications for understanding what types of areas might or might not contribute to the target (and how to differentiate between them). However, there is relatively little clarity in the target, on the conceptual and practical boundaries between an ‘MPA’, an ‘area-based management measure’, and ‘everything else’. A non-exhaustive list of examples of such ‘other measures’ is provided; and key terms are not defined (‘well-functioning’, ‘integrated’, ‘destructive practices’, etc). As such they are open to interpretation, with implications for consistency of reporting on progress between countries. Finally, while the documentation accompanying the CBD target does also specify the scale and type of biodiversity features that the representation requirement pertains to, it does not define network or management effectiveness (CBD 2005).

Global Marine Protection Targets: Are They Measurable?

Measurable targets should be easily appraised (van Herten and Gunning-Schepers 2000), and thus allow feedback on progress to be provided in a timely manner. Progress that is reported publicly conveys the message that progress is valued, which in turn can increase motivation and commitment to achieving the targets, as well as increase public demand for further progress (Latham and Locke 1991; Roberts 2005). There are various aspects to measurability, which are discussed below.

Targets Must be Quantitative

In order for a target to be measurable, it must be quantitative in some way. However, the WSSD target provides no quantification of the global representative networks of MPAs that it commits to achieve, and as such it is impossible to assess whether and/or when the target will be achieved. The WPC target is partially measurable, in that it requires 20–30% of the world’s oceans to be ‘strictly protected’. However, the target also requires these strictly protected areas to be embedded within global representative networks of MPAs, the size, extent, effectiveness, etc, of which is not specified. The CBD target is fully measurable in that the full scope of the target is subject to a numerical target of 10% of all marine ecological regions under national jurisdiction (CBD 2005).

What Information Needs to be Collected?

Measurability is inherently related to the specificity of the targets, in that unambiguous, operational definitions of target requirements provide a clear parameterisation of the problem, and clarify the specific data needs to enable progress to be accurately assessed. However, as discussed, operational definitions are lacking for some or all components of all three targets (see Table 2).

Data Availability, and Capacity to Collect, Store, and Report Data and Information

Beyond having a clear understanding of data and information is needed to monitor progress towards the targets, such data must also be available. If it is not, then the technical capacity to collect, store, and manage it must exist or be developed. There must also be sufficient capacity to analyse and report progress towards the targets in a timely manner. The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), maintained by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), in collaboration with IUCN, has been widely used for global protected area monitoring. However, this database has limitations for reporting on MPAs (CBD 2003; Chape and others 2005) and formal calls have been made for better information on MPAs (CBD 2004). MPA data from the WDPA were updated to enable more effective monitoring of the three global targets, to the extent that available information—and specificity of the targets—allowed. In particular, assessments were made of the extent of no-take MPAs (‘strictly protected’, in the language of the World Parks Congress target), and of the network characteristics of the global set of MPAs, using known larval dispersal distances as a proxy for optimal inter-MPA distance. This represents an improvement in measurement capacity, but there remain important data and information gaps, which require additional capacity and resources to fill (Wood and others 2008). In particular, the WDPA currently only includes data on protected areas that meet the IUCN definition of MPA. It does not include any of the area-based measures referred to in the CBD target (see also Kenchington (2010)).

Global Marine Protection Targets: Are They Achievable?

An achievable target is one that is action-oriented, and where those implementing it have the necessary knowledge, information, skills, and resources to do so (van Herten and Gunning-Schepers 2000). As such, achievability, too, is in part affected by the specificity of the target, but also depends on the context within which the target is being applied, i.e., the global marine environment. However, the actions specified by the targets are, in essence, simply to ‘designate MPAs’, and ‘achieve effective management/conservation’, with little guidance on how this should be done, what information it should be based on, who should do it, and with no explicit recognition that the information needed to meet the targets (however their requirements are operationally defined) may not be currently unavailable. In terms of skills and resources, inadequate capacity and insufficient financial and technical resources, are all already well-cited as a major contributor to the failure of existing MPAs in meeting their management objectives (Kelleher and others 1995; Alder 1996; McClanahan 1999). Achievement of the targets purely based on their areal extent, represents a 6- to 375-fold increase in the current global marine area protected. The achievement of this increase seems likely to be challenged by this lack of financial resources. Furthermore, existing legal and institutional frameworks used to designate MPAs currently operate at national or more local levels. This introduces substantial complexity and geographical variation in the implementation of the targets more locally, relative to the collective achievability of these targets at the global scale.

Global Marine Protection Targets: Are They Realistic?

Targets are realistic when the level of change required to meet them is itself attainable. They should be ambitious enough to require commitment, motivation and effort to reach them (targets that are too low may lapse into formalities), but not so high that they cause frustration and complacency (van Herten and Gunning-Schepers 2000). The extent to which a target is realistic is thus also related to the timeframe available to reach it. In the case of the global MPA targets, the growth of the total area of global MPA network (i.e. without considering other target requirements) was on the order of 5% per year from 1984 to 2006, and has increased rapidly since then (Fig. 1). However, despite this increase, all targets still appear to be far out of reach, especially when one considers the many other requirements of strict protection, representativeness, networking, effective management, and broader definitions of area-based measures.
Fig. 1

Updated graph of global growth in MPA coverage from Wood and others (2008), showing recent increases in global MPA coverage (larger dots). Reproduced from Spalding and others (2010)

Global Marine Protection Targets: Are They Time-Bound?

All three global marine protection targets have explicitly stated deadlines: it is 2012 for all three targets, although the CBD target deadline has now been updated to 2020, with the revision of the Strategic Plan at the tenth Conference of the Parties to the CBD (CBD 2010).


The objective of this study was to use the SMART framework to critically assess the potential role of global marine protection targets in conservation and marine resource management, given frequent criticism of large-scale targets for being unattainable and/or ecologically irrelevant. A summary of the extent to which three global targets (WSSD, WPC, and CBD) can be considered SMART is provided in Table 2. Three broad issues emerged from this assessment that are relevant to understanding the potential role, limitations, and challenges associated with global-scale marine protection targets.

Target Formulation, Evolution, and the Information Base that Underpins It

The three global protection target formulations all appear to meet the SMART criteria to some degree, although none of them meet all of the criteria. The WSSD target appears to be the ‘least’ SMART, and the CBD target the ‘most’ SMART. There also appears to have been an evolution of the ‘SMARTness’ of the targets over time, particularly in terms of specificity. Each revision of the CBD target in particular appears to have become ‘SMARTer’ over time, having increased in specificity and also in achievability (Table 2).

The CBD target increased in specificity from 2004 to 2006, and the recent decision adopted at CBD COP10 kept the same numerical target and extended the previous deadline. While this was controversial during negotiations for not being ambitious enough, a more constructive perspective may be that it is the most achievable and realistic of marine protection targets adopted to date, in part because it responded to existing information on progress to date and perceived achievability. By not increasing the ambitiousness of the target, there is an opportunity to actively consolidate and build on the substantial work that has been done over the past few years to generate new knowledge, foster political will, and create the necessary legal mechanisms to implement the target.

The SMART criteria are not independent of each other. In particular, target specificity feeds measurability, which in turn affects achievability. Perceived achievability, plus an explicit time-frame, together affect how realistic a target may be considered to be. A SMART target is fundamentally dependent on the availability of relevant data and information to inform the entire cycle of target-setting, implementation, monitoring, reporting, and target revision. Indeed, the earlier MPA targets (especially those adopted before 2005) were formulated with relatively poor knowledge of the current extent of MPAs, other characteristics, and therefore with little understanding of their achievability (Wood and others 2008; Spalding and others 2010).

Formulating targets on an inadequate information base may have one of two unintended consequences. Firstly, targets that have been formulated with low or inappropriate specificity, combined with inadequate information to support implementation, may result in targets with low actual achievability. The best example of this is the WPC target, which was adopted before there was adequate knowledge on current extent of MPAs, or the proportion of this that was no-take or strictly protected. With information that is now available (Wood and others 2008), this numerical target, especially for no-take MPAs, appears to be highly unachievable and unrealistic. Had this information been available earlier, the target may have been formulated differently.

Secondly, targets that have been formulated based on inadequate information and with low specificity and measurability may result in targets that are perceived to be less achievable or realistic than they actually are. This is best exemplified with the CBD target. A lack of available data on area-based measures means that substantial areas that would legitimately contribute to the fulfilment of the target are not reported on. This represents a significant barrier to accurately assessing progress toward the CBD target. Moreover, it has the potential to undermine the perceived achievability of the targets by those countries committed to meeting them. Given that a small number of countries have already met (and exceeded) their CBD target (Spalding and others 2010), it is possible that, with more accurate reporting and assessment, more countries would have already met, or be much closer to meeting a particular target than is currently understood. This could dramatically (and positively) shift our perception of the extent to which ocean resources are already conserved and/or managed, enable us to make more informed decisions about how to prioritise allocation of resources for further conservation efforts, as well as support more appropriate target (re)formulation.

Mismatches of Scale: Target Formulation and Implementation

While many of the difficulties currently facing the achievement of the targets may appear to stem, at least in part, from insufficient specificity, operational definitions, and data with which to measure them, it is not at all clear that the global targets themselves should be the sole provider of such parameters. The most comprehensive MPA network is physically and socially connected, hierarchical in structure, and functions at multiple, complementary scales through that hierarchy (Agardy 2005). The development of such networks is ultimately the consequence of political processes, which, like ecological systems, operate on multiple scales (Agrawal and Ostrom 2006). Accordingly, one might expect a vertically integrated system of policies, goals and targets towards a global MPA network, applicable at multiple scales (both spatial and temporal) ranging from global to local (Latham and Locke 1991; Roberts 2005). Global targets could thus provide the overarching framework at the top of this hierarchy, providing a common context for more local efforts (Roberts 2005). However, there has been little recognition of the need for a hierarchical system of targets that are SMART at all levels, or, in particular, of the need to translate large-scale targets into intermediate-scale ones, although they are now beginning to emerge (the CBD COP8 target is explicitly described as an intermediate, policy-driven goal (CBD 2005)). For example, most assessments of the ecological relevance of large-scale targets have applied them directly to very local or specific contexts, without any interpretation or modification for the scale of application (Solomon and others 2003; Wiersma and Nudds 2006). As such the questionable ecological relevance of large-scale targets may be (at least partially) due to a mismatch between the scale at which the targets were intended to operate, and the scale at which they were assessed. This may be further compounded by insufficient specificity and/or data availability at both scales. If global targets are successfully and demonstrably cascaded down to smaller (e.g. national) scales, and back up again, the role of large-scale targets may become more clear. Access to relevant, timely, and reliable data is thus critical to meaningful target-setting and reporting processes.

Psychology Versus Ecology

While large-scale targets have been criticised for being primarily the products of political processes (Soulé and Sanjayan 1998; Solomon and others 2003; Svancara and others 2005), this is, in fact, inevitable in membership organizations and United Nations bodies where decisions are reached by negotiated consensus (Roberts 2005). Furthermore, the political process through which large-scale targets are formulated also represents a public and formal commitment to action. Indeed, commitment to and belief in a particular issue (i.e., political will) is a fundamental pre-requisite for behaviour directed toward resolving it (Latham and Yukl 1975; Routhe and others 2005). As such it may in fact be more appropriate that the primary function of large-scale targets be viewed as psychological, rather than ecological. Psychology is a key, yet often overlooked, component of biodiversity conservation, since human behaviour is a major contributor to both causing and slowing or preventing biodiversity loss (Saunders and others 2006). However, even if we accept that the primary function of large-scale targets is to motivate action, the question remains: why do they appear to be failing in this regard?

From a psychological perspective, the formulation of the target is critical to its attainment, and the SMART concept can provide useful guidance in this regard. In particular it has been useful for highlighting the importance of having adequate information to develop, implement, and adapt targets and the necessary operational definitions. A hierarchical framework of targets as described above implicitly requires that global targets be somewhat flexible, or ‘universal’, in order to retain relevance to the full diversity of contexts at smaller scales, whilst still being sufficiently specific to be measurable. It also implies that operational definitions of target requirements need to be developed at multiple scales. Under this framework, the responsibility for developing operational definitions must therefore fall, not only to global targets, but also to the institutions responsible for implementing them at each scale of function. As such, the process to translate global targets into operational and measurable action is fundamentally dependent on political will, which both influences and is influenced by perceived achievability of targets, and which is also a product of target formulation.

As noted earlier, under-ambitious targets may not solicit a change in behaviour, while over-ambitious targets (real or perceived) may inhibit progress towards the target, especially where confidence in ability to meet it is low. Challenging targets may also hurt performance if: (a) little or no strategy is provided, but the target is adopted at an early stage of learning; (b) the task is heuristic; and (c) there is pressure to perform well immediately (Latham and Locke 1991). These conditions largely mirror the current context for the global marine protection targets, in that: (a) the current level of protection is low, and the increase required is substantial; in addition, systematic planning of MPA networks is still a relatively nascent field that typically requires more data than are currently available, and has to date been used patchily, at relatively small scales, and mostly in an academic context (Leslie and others 2003; Sarkar and others 2006; Wood and others 2008); (b) the process to create global networks of MPAs is politically and ecologically complex; and (c) the target deadlines are imminent.

While concerns expressed about the ecological relevance of the targets are indeed valid, and should not be downplayed, it is thus critical to also consider the psychological and political context of the target-setting process. The increase in specificity of all targets through time (WSSD → WPC → CBD), as well as within the CBD target, may be interpreted partly as an attempt by the international community to address, at least in part, some of the ecological concerns about earlier, purely percentage-based targets. However, this increase in specificity seems to be somewhat superficial, in that the concepts embodied in the targets are not operationally defined. It is also problematic from an implementation perspective, and the data and information required to implement them are not consistently available. While this increase in specificity represents an improvement to earlier, purely percentage-based targets, the gains made in ecological relevance may have come at a cost to measurability and achievability of the targets. By contrast, and somewhat ironically, if the targets had been formulated so that they met all of the SMART criteria, in particular the achievability and realistic criteria, then their ecological relevance may well have been even more heavily questioned. This highlights the delicate trade-off between the psychology and ecology of conservation, which is a fundamentally human activity.


Global marine protection targets appear to have undergone some evolution over the past decade, and are becoming SMARTer. Nevertheless, they can not yet be considered fully SMART. Their ecological relevance at different scales remains of legitimate concern, as does their achievability, although the recently adopted CBD revised target seems to be the most SMART (and potentially achievable) target adopted yet. Additionally, if a primary role of global-scale targets is to motivate behavioural change and political will, preferably across scales, they do seem to have had some success in this regard. In particular, a substantial and rapid growth of the global extent of protection has been observed in the past five years (Spalding and others 2010). Furthermore, formal commitments have been made by Governments around the world to protect substantial proportions of their marine waters, as explicit responses to the global targets. Some of these commitments have been made at the national level, e.g., of Fiji and Kiribati, while others have been collaborative commitments such as the Caribbean Challenge (Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Commonwealth of Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) the Micronesia Challenge (Republic of the Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and U.S. Territory of Guam), and the Coral Triangle Initiative (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste) (CBD 2011). Thus, the targets do seem to have been at least partially successful at providing the political motivation necessary to result in conservation action at smaller scales, which suggests that there is a legitimate role for global conservation targets. This role may be further strengthened if target-setting, implementation, monitoring, and target revision cycles can be more closely tied to the SMART framework and the data and information needs that underpin it.


This work was initially conducted as part of the Sea Around Us Project, an activity funded and initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Funding was also provided by WWF. I thank Peter Herkenrath, UNEP-WCMC, and Andy Thorpe, University of Portsmouth for comments.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011