What are marine protected areas?

Jacob Lips

Marine protected areas (MPAs) comprise of protected areas of seas, oceans, and estuaries. In the US, this may refer to the Great Lakes. MPAs are established and managed through the efforts of the government at all levels—local, state, territorial, native, regional, national, or international authorities, and differ substantially among and between nations. MPAs are also established to protect ecosystems, preserve cultural resources such as shipwrecks, and archaeological sites, or sustain fisheries production.

There have been debates concerning the depths and bounds of the term 'marine protected area.' Some would argue that MPAs should refer to areas that are closed to all human activities. Others also would like them to be special areas kept solely for recreation purposes. Some would also want them to sustain commercial use, exactly what fishery management areas are designed for.

Authorities refer to 'marine protected area' as a variety of conservation and management methods used in the United States. They could also refer to a range of habitats and may vary in purpose, legal authorities, agencies, management approaches, level of protection, and restrictions on human uses.

A lot of people commonly ask whether or not the restrictions of marine protected areas (MPA) have something to do with the use of these areas. One thing that should be remembered is that MPAs are primarily established for the conservation of natural or cultural resources. There may be restrictions on certain activities in MPAs in the United States, however, one should consider the many activities such as fishing that these areas allow. Marine reserves, on the other hand, are more restrictive and have specific regulations on the methods of catching fish, collection of shells, or other activities involving the taking of an object or species from its natural environment. Marine reserves, which account for three percent of US waters, follow the 'no-take' policy in the whole region.

There are several definitions of MPAs set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A marine protected area is "Any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical, and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment."

A definition presented by the US Executive Order 13158 in May 2000 refers to MPAs as any marine area reserved by ' federal, state, tribal, territorial, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.'

Criteria in Classifying MPAs

Because MPAs can be very varied, there is a need to establish a system that will help describe these areas in an easier manner just by referring to the characteristics common to most MPAs. Characteristics common in these MPAs include conservation focus, level of protection, the permanence of protection, constancy of protection, and ecological scale of protection. These terms become a common vocabulary for MPA managers and authorities during meetings when ideas, insights, and additional suggestions referring to additional protected areas are discussed.

To date, there are thirteen national marine sanctuaries managed by the National Oceanic Service, and another 28 national estuarine research reserves managed by the NOS in partnership with the state. These conservation areas also act as hubs for recreation, research, and education. MPAs can also refer to national parks, national wildlife refuges, and state areas for the protection of habitat, fish, and wildlife. The National System of MPAs is put together in an organized, effective network that can protect species across various habitats in their different life stages across challenges.

Categories of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) Set by the IUCN

Strict Nature Reserve 

A strict nature reserve or marine reserve usually has 'maximum protection, ' in all its species, thus prohibiting humans to take or remove any of these resources. It has legal protection against fishing or development. Less than one percent of the world's oceans is considered a marine reserve as of 2007. Marine reserves enjoy a lot of benefits including the increase and development of fishery and other species, within the boundaries of these reserves. This development is measured in terms of the increase in diversity, density, biomass, body size, and reproductive potential of the fishery.

In the United States, waters around Desecheo Island in Puerto Rico are considered a marine reserve, thus fishing is prohibited within 0.5 miles (0.80 km) around the island.

Wilderness Area

Marine wilderness areas are crucial for marine biodiversity as they are responsible for keeping massive levels of biodiversity and endemic species. However, these wilderness areas are on a rapid decline. A study conducted in July 2018 completed the first systematic analysis of marine wilderness around the world. Sadly, the study found that only a small fraction, about 13 percent, of the world's oceans can be classified as wilderness.

Jones and his colleagues identified 19 human stressors that account for the decline of marine wilderness areas globally. Some of these factors include commercial shipping, fertilizer and sediment runoff, and several types of fishing in the ocean and their cumulative impact.

To save marine wilderness, an organization partnered with NOS, government agencies, Native Tribes, tourism entities, community groups, philanthropists and conservation photographers, and filmmakers to set a goal of incorporating marine wilderness values in their methodologies, messaging, and support existing protected area policy implementation and enforcement.


Credit: Gina Trapani

Marine National Parks 

Marine parks may uphold the protection of ecosystems but still allow human use to a certain extent. However, activities like fishing or extraction of resources may be prohibited in the park, except for recreation activities and other additional efforts to make these areas accessible to visitors. Boats used for water sports such as glass-bottomed boats and small submarines, to windowed undersea tubes are allowed in these areas. 

Then again, protection laws differ from one country to another. New Zealand gives a higher degree of legal protection to its marine reserve than its marine parks for conservation purposes. New South Wales is also planning to install marine parks, which are located along the coastline of the entire state.

Natural monuments or features

These are areas established to protect historical sites such as shipwrecks, and cultural sites like aboriginal fishing grounds. The four marine national monuments that received support and protection include the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, and The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.   

These national monuments were protected by several agencies led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. States and territorial governments also cooperated and gave support in the management of these areas in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.

Natural monument or feature areas receive Category III protection set by the IUCN. In this category, maintaining biodiversity and management priorities are of utmost importance.

Habitat/species management area

These special areas are established to protect certain marine species to support fisheries, rare habitats, and reproduction habits of marine animals such as spawning/nursing grounds for fish. These areas are also established to protect the entire ecosystem.

These areas may receive a Category IV protection from the IUCN and will need regular, active interventions to proactively address the immediate needs of a species and maintain the habitats of species in the protected area.

In particular, Category IV protected areas are designed to protect (1) flora species of international, national or local importance; 2) fauna species of international, national or local importance including resident or migratory fauna; and/or 3) habitats.

Credit: Greg McFall


Protected Seascape

Protected seascapes have limited active management that was also practiced among protected landscapes. These areas are considered Category V landscapes, protected by interactions of the authorities with humans through traditional management practices.

Category V areas play a big part in a mosaic of management patterns protected area designations and other conservation mechanisms. These areas act as a buffer around a core of areas that received more strict protection. Category V areas may also serve as a linking habitat between several other protected areas.

Related Protected Areas

World Heritage Sites (WHS)

It was found that maritime areas are poorly represented, and there are only about 46 marine areas out of over 800 sites considered as WHS. 

Man and the Biosphere

This refers to UNESCO programs that establish biosphere reserves under Article 4 and set protection rules for terrestrial, coastal, or marine ecosystems. 

Ramsar site

These sites must meet certain criteria for the definition of 'Wetland' for it to be considered a part of the global system. These sites may not need protection but are indexed because of its importance or recommendation by an agency.

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