Marine Protected Areas 101

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monumeny

We talk about marine protected areas a lot (surprising no one) but what are they, really? 

By name alone, you might be able to infer that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are spaces in the ocean set aside for conservation, preservation, and other purposes. MPAs are not one thing, but more of a conservation umbrella that includes different types and methods of ocean protection that are useful in different ecosystems, countries, and governance structures. They include areas like marine reserves, no-take zones, national marine sanctuaries, fully protected marine areas, marine parks, and other managed marine areas. Each has its own levels of protection, process for planning and execution, and a wide range of activities allowed within their boundaries. The idea behind most of them though, is that offering protection to a selected area has benefits to the surrounding area in the ocean that is not defined as an MPA. One example is fish spillover theory where MPA protections for fish species allow for greater reproduction and growth for valuable fish species that then move beyond the MPAs boundaries and benefit divers, fishermen, and coastal communities. 

Today, only about four percent of the world’s ocean receives protection through MPAs with many of them receiving less than full protection due to underfunding or other resource limitations. However, more of the ocean needs protection from MPAs as they help maintain areas that are important sources of ecosystem services like food, coastal protection, and economic support through tourism and other opportunities. In addition to more protection, MPAs perform better when they are integrated in ways that support animal migration or habitats that transcend human-defined boundaries. For example, over the last 20 years in the United States, the addition of MPAs in U.S. federal waters (between three and 200 miles offshore) has occurred on a site-by-site basis, leaving gaps in protection for important habitats, species, and historic artifacts. 

We know the ocean is facing serious existential threats ranging from population decline, climate change and ocean acidification, and plastics pollution. Effectively managed MPAs are critical conservation tools that can help monitor and address these pressing global challenges. An increased use of MPAs in marine spaces that need conservation expertise and resources the most stand to offer substantial benefits to wildlife and humans alike if planned, executed, and supported in the right way. These benefits increase when MPAs form networks to share information, monitor traveling populations and ocean conditions, and engage the public in ocean conservation. 

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is committed to the expansion of the National Marine Sanctuary System in the United States and supporting increased use of MPAs around the world. At Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2020, we announced the Marine Biodiversity Dialogues, a program supported by the Foundation and the Lenfest Ocean Program. The Marine Biodiversity Dialogues program are supporting Dr. J. Emmett Duffy of the Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Daniel Dunn of the University of Queensland (Australia), to convene interdisciplinary teams of experts to develop a spatial gap analysis to assess the status of marine habitat and biodiversity protection in U.S. marine waters. Outcomes will help managers all over the world understand areas of high need, possible implementation strategies, and the potential benefits to ocean resources and society. 

Watch the Defining Priorities for Meaningful Protection plenary from Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2020 discussing Marine Protected Areas