1. The juvenile stages of fish are often dependent on specific habitat types for their survival. Protecting these habitats may be crucial for maintaining strong adult stocks. The Natura 2000 network of the European Union offers protection of marine habitats that are essential for the recruitment of many fish species. By protecting these critical habitats the network may be important for maintaining the stocks of these fish species.
2. We present a spatially explicit, GIS-based, assessment of two important components of the ecological coherence of Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks: representativity and connectivity. Representativity can be measured as the proportion of each conservation feature that is protected, whereas connectivity assesses the spatial configuration of the network. We apply these analyses to study the ecological coherence of the Natura 2000 network in a 30 000-km2 archipelago in the Baltic Sea, with respect to a coastal fish assemblage and associated habitats. The analyses are based on fish distribution maps that have been constructed by statistically relating life stage specific occurrence to environmental variables, and thereafter making spatial predictions based on maps of the environmental variables.
3. The map-based analyses show that both the representativity and the connectivity of the network are poor with respect to the studied fish species. In total, 3·5% (11 km2) of the assemblage recruitment habitat was protected and 48% of the potentially connected habitats were included in the MPA network.
4. The assessment explicitly identified geographical areas, visually communicated using maps, where the network should be improved to ensure ecological coherence.
5. Synthesis and applications. Many MPA networks around the world, such as the Natura 2000 network in Europe, have recently come into effect. Establishment of the networks has often been governed by opportunity rather than by strict ecological analyses, primarily because distribution maps of species and habitats have been unavailable. Map-based assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of evolving MPA networks, such as the one presented here, are needed in adaptive management. They can provide an efficient tool for visualising and communicating the results to stakeholders and policy makers in the process of working towards ecological coherence.