Conservation of the Mediterranean marine ecosystems is particularly challenging; high biodiversity is combined with high human population densities and a long history of resource exploitation. Residents and users of coastal areas often perceive marine conservation and management as limiting factors to economic development. Under these conditions, the creation of comprehensive systems of marine protected areas (MPAs) can be problematic. We selected a stretch of coast in southern Italy as a representative example of a Mediterranean coastline and nearshore marine ecosystems, featuring a complex matrix of vulnerable habitats in a landscape fragmented by multiple human activities and associated stressors. Through the use of site-selection algorithms, we investigated how human activities constrain MPA planning. Rather than assuming that patches of the same habitat found at different locations are interchangeable, we considered the scenario of a heterogeneous landscape of human impacts creating high variability in habitat quality. Despite widespread human influence, identification of portions of habitats to be protected from direct human disturbance as core no-take areas is still possible using the inclusion of 10 and 30% of low and high priority habitat, respectively, in reserves as a conservation target. Implementation of MPAs with a limited protection scheme that also include several small no-take areas could represent a feasible strategy for the conservation of Mediterranean coastal marine habitats. Moreover, MPAs could be combined with coastal zoning of activities as a means of further controlling effects over broader areas and allowing for recovery of degraded areas. Site-selection algorithms are invaluable tools for conservation planning. However, careful consideration of the potential constraints imposed by local human activities and future research aimed at filling existing gaps in understanding the ecology are crucial for making this approach useful in marine conservation planning.
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