Evaluating U.S. Federal Marine Protected Areas Programs: A Comparative Analysis and Conceptual Framework

Rosemarie A. Bradley (2008)

Federal area-based marine protection and management in the United States is overseen by the National Marine Sanctuary Program, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge System, the National Park Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Each agency and program represents a different approach to managing the oceans. Currently, no federal agency or program is responsible for evaluating the overall effectiveness of these programs. Evaluation is needed to determine whether programs are achieving their management objectives and conservation goals. Although evaluation protocols are legislatively mandated, implementation is inconsistent across programs. Federal agencies have been criticized for failing to protect marine resources effectively. The objective of this comparative case study is to determine whether the evaluation practices of federal area-based marine protection programs (also known as Marine Protected Area [MPA] programs) are contributing to improved marine resource protection. I investigate: (1) what methodologies federal agencies currently employ to evaluate their marine protected areas programs; (2) to what extent federal MPA program evaluation processes adhere to program evaluation theory and practice; and (3) how components of these evaluations could inform a national-scale MPA evaluation system. I also discuss whether evaluation results have been disseminated and recommendations implemented and the extent of inter-agency and intra-agency exchange of evaluation information. The results of my research indicate that: (1) federal reporting requirements drive MPA evaluation; (2) programs fall short in Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) program results/accountability section; (3) MPA programs utilize more output measures than outcome measures; (4) past independent evaluations focus on funding/budget rather than programmatic success in marine conservation; (5) MPA staff face numerous evaluation challenges; (6) MPA staff are interested in a national MPA evaluation system; (7) implementation/dissemination of evaluation results is lacking; and (8) MPA cooperative efforts exclude some programs. The U.S. National Marine Protected Areas Center is in the process of developing a national system of marine protected areas, and it has identified the evaluation of management effectiveness as one of the key components of an effective national system. My research contributes to the development of a national-scale evaluation framework for U.S. federal marine protected areas. I present a conceptual model for a national-scale federal MPA program evaluation system. Components of the model include recommendations for: (1) establishing a national MPA evaluation coordination division; (2) developing an inventory of existing MPA evaluation studies and performance measures; (3) creating a centralized MPA evaluation information database; (4) developing MPA program and system-wide performance measures; (5) promoting MPA evaluation capacity-building including developing relationships with evaluation professionals and establishing a system of inter-agency and intra-agency MPA evaluation information exchange; and (6) ensuring that any future MPA legislation includes evaluation language.

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