Why Marine Protected Areas Matter

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Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, Oregon, U.S. source: Flikr

On August 26, 2016, the Obama Administration announced the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii from 360,000 to 1.5 million sq km. It is the largest no-take marine protected area (MPA) and the largest protected area in the world, land or sea. Coming at the end of the administration, the executive order demonstrates President Obama’s desire to have conservation as part of his legacy. More importantly, it is a reminder to the American public that its government must take measured steps to protect against the changing climate and support sustainable fisheries.

MPAs are not new, and are an important tool in government policy for conservation and fisheries management. In the U.S., they include a variety of environments, including open ocean, intertidal zones, estuaries, coastal areas and the Great Lakes. Many U.S. MPAs are mixed use, but some are no-take, which prohibit commercial and recreational extraction to enable ultimate protection for marine ecosystems. MPAs protect all types of habitats, plants and animals within U.S. waters, and even includes protection of shipwrecks or other cultural resources.

The purpose, management and legal authorities of MPAs also varies in the U.S. In 2000, President George Bush issued Executive Order 13158 which supported a comprehensive system of MPAs and established the MPA Center; yet it did not contain a mandate to override federal or state regulations or procedures. President Bush also originally designated the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, and as well as the Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments in January 2009. Overall, in the U.S., the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce oversees a majority (97%) of MPAs.

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The National Marine Protected Areas Center maintains a Classification System which functionally describes MPAs using five characteristics common to MPAs: conservation focus, level of protection, permanence of protection, constancy of protection and scale of protection. These areas of classification dictate the purpose of establishing an MPA, “what it is intended to protect, how it achieves that protection, and how it may affect local ecosystems and local human uses.”

According to NOAA, the U.S. has more than 1200 MPAs which cover 26% (3.2 million sq km) of U.S. waters. No-take MPAs cover about half of that area, or 13% (1.5 million sq km). In comparison, about 14% of land in the U.S. is protected, and U.S. waters are 1.4 times greater than the country’s land area (12 million sq km).

There are no federal mandates to set aside a specific percentage of the U.S. marine environment for protection, but some proponents of conservation believe there should be targets. In a recent statement, President Obama acknowledged that Pacific islands are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change with rising sea levels and rising temperatures. At the IUCN World Congress, Palau President Remengesau announced his desire for 30 percent of global waters to be protected (currently only 2 percent is protected). In Palau, 80 percent of its maritime territory has been designated a sanctuary to stem the effects of overfishing. With the State Department-led Our Ocean conference upcoming, this issue of global expansion of marine protection should stay on the agenda.

In part because they can be designated or classified in different ways (i.e. some areas can be more protected than others), MPAs are not controversial and receive bipartisan support. Importantly, they also require minimal effort from the American public; they do not require modification of the majority’s everyday lifestyles, but their complicity shows in a way that Americans care for the environment.

Marine protected areas will experience the same impacts from climate change as the wider ocean and coastal areas; but the intention is to create a pristine and protected laboratory to learn from these changes as well as to regenerate marine populations decimated by overfishing, IUU fishing, and bycatch. Protection from commercial and in some cases recreational fishing creates a space where coral and fish alike can take refuge. Ocean acidification continues to threaten species, especially coral reefs, and MPAs are intended to support ocean resilience. Scientists plan to monitor the fragile environment, and hope that by expanding the monument, it will also help nearby ecosystems to adapt.

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