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Report, 2022

Ecological connectivity in marine protected areas in Swedish Baltic coastal waters - A coherence assessment

Berkström, Charlotte; Sacre, Edmond; Bergström, Ulf


The Department of Aquatic Resources at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU Aqua) was commissioned by the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management to assess the ecological coherence of the marine protected area (MPA) network along the Swedish Baltic Sea coast, focusing on ecological connectivity and representativity, and species performing active migrations. The study also aimed to test the influence of anthropogenic pressures on connectivity and identify areas for expansion of the existing MPA network to maximise connectivity in the region. This report is the first to assess large-scale connectivity and ecological coherence of the MPA network in the Baltic Sea with a focus on coastal habitat-forming vegetation and fish species with active dispersal. Information on dispersal/migration distances was combined with species distribution models to produce connectivity maps. To align the coherence analyses with the conservation targets specified by responsible authorities, we included the nested targets for specific species ("preciserade bevarandevärden” in Swedish) listed within the Swedish framework for MPAs. Fish species like eel, salmon and trout, as well as birds and seals, which are also listed as nested targets, were not included in our analyses, since connectivity models of these long-distance migrants would be redundant as they do not affect the more small-scale connectivity patterns that are in focus in this study.

Hotspot areas for connectivity were identified, and these were generally concentrated in a few, relatively small areas. These hotspot areas are, however, highly susceptible to coastal development and human activities, as they are often situated in bays, inlets and topographically complex archipelagos. Anthropogenic pressures, in this case physical disturbance, had a relatively large predicted impact on connectivity, particularly on certain species. The majority of these species are of freshwater origin and have shorter migration distances (e.g. crucian carp, roach, common rudd, common bream/silver bream, and common bleak) than marine species like cod, flounder and herring, which perform long-distance migrations between open sea and coastal areas as part of their life cycle. Also large predatory fish like pike, pike-perch and perch, as well as habitat-forming submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), showed a pronounced decrease in connectivity when incorporating physical disturbance into the models. This may be explained by most human pressures being concentrated along the coastline, often in shallow sheltered bays and inlets where human development coincides with sensitive vegetated habitats and important breeding, spawning, nursery and feeding grounds for fish. Connectivity is reduced when habitats become fragmented or diminished and populations become smaller and more isolated. This may in turn have consequences on genetic diversity, viability of populations and ultimately ecosystem functioning.

Representativity of habitats; i.e. amount of habitat protected, was below what is generally scientifically recommended and the new target of 30% protection by 2030 in the EU Biodiversity Strategy for all but three species (of 30 in total). Representativity was very poor regarding strict MPAs, an average of 2% across species. The target according to the EU Biodiversity Strategy is 10% strict protection. Similar results were found for connectivity where the amount connected habitat within MPAs was low. MPAs in the study area were sufficiently spaced (distance apart), but dominated by MPAs of small size. Priority areas with high connectivity (identified by the spatial prioritization software prioritizr) were insufficiently protected and the connectivity of the network could be greatly improved with targeted protection in just a few important locations. Areas that are well connected locally, but are isolated from other priority areas, are especially important to protect as they are critical to connectivity of the network. Regulations within the MPA network in Swedish Baltic Sea coastal waters are generally weak, particularly in the priority areas. Applying an ecosystem-based management approach and including stronger regulations of fisheries and of activities causing local physical disturbance in parts of the MPA network is encouraged in order to reach conservation goals. The results from this study can be used to improve planning and management of the Baltic Sea MPA network, marine spatial planning in the region and improving the green infrastructure, securing important ecosystem services for future generations.


connectivity; marine protected areas; coherence; representativity

Published in

Aqua reports
2022, number: 2022:11
eISBN: 978-91-576-9965-7
Publisher: Institutionen för akvatiska resurser, Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet