Marine Protected Areas

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Marine protected areas

Marine protected areas (MPAs)are marine environments that enjoy certain federal, state, local, or tribal regulation and conservation management programs by virtue of their unique ecosystems and/or cultural resources.

Known variously as marine reserves, marine sanctuaries, and/or no-take areas, marine protected areas may include national marine sanctuaries, marine features of national parks and monuments, marine wildlife refuges, fishery reserves, estuarine reserves, or state conservation areas and reserves. They may be regulated as no-take areas, meaning that marine resources and/or marine life cannot be removed from these sanctuaries. Or, they may allow fishing and other commercial or recreational activities within certain guidelines and limitations. Management of an MPA is determined on a site-by-site basis by one or more federal, state, territorial, local, and/or tribal regulatory authorities.

Marine protected areas are not just a reaction to the effects of industrialization. They have existed in some form among traditional fishing cultures for centuries. Tabu or kapu areas, controlled by clans or chiefs in Oceania, created no-take zones. When westernization occurred, many of these areas disappeared. In recent years, some of these tabu areas have been revived.

Some countries created protected areas along their coastlines through governmental decrees or legislation. The Royal National Park in New South Wales, Australia , is perhaps the oldest protected area in the world. Designated in 1879, the park prohibits the use of explosives, net-fishing, and the commercial harvesting of oysters. Certain areas restrict all commercial fishing . Other Australian reserves followed. Today, another Australian MPA, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, is considered one of the most successful multiple-use MPAs in the world.

Other governments soon instituted marine protected areas on their shores. New Zealand has led the world with the establishment of 291 MPAs. Africa has established 92 reserves, and Europe is rapidly catching up, with MPAs popping up in France, Spain, Greece, Albania, Bosnia, and Croatia.

Though the United States has 9,3208 mi.(150,000 km) of coastline and had some initial legislation in place, it waited until serious damage was occurring before developing a viable plan to coordinate the nation's MPA-related initiatives. Unfortunately, much of the focus of the US MPAs will first be on remediaton of many of its fragile coastal environments before concentrating on developing an inclusive plan for its extensive coastline.

In May 2000, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13158 on Marine Protected Areas, which was designed to ensure the long-term security of critical ocean habitats, marine life, and cultural resources through an integrated national network of science-based MPA selection and management. The order designated the Department of Interior and Department of Commerce as jointly responsible for the MPA mission to "(a) strengthen the management, protection, and conservation of existing marine protected areas and establish new or expanded MPAs; (b) develop a scientifically based, comprehensive national system of MPAs representing diverse U.S. marine ecosystems, and the Nation's natural and cultural resources; and (c) avoid causing harm to MPAs through federally conducted, approved, or funded activities."

Executive Order 13158 mandated the creation of a national database of MPAs. This register of nationally-recognized MPAs would promote integrated conservation efforts between federal, state, and local authorities and stakeholders. Order 13158 defined an MPA as "any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein." To further hone this relatively broad-based definition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has established five criteria for inclusion in the MPA inventory:

  • The site must have defined geographical boundaries and must be in federal, U.S. territorial, state, or tribal marine areas.
  • The site must be marine in nature , meaning that it includes ocean or coastal waters, including intertidal areas, bays, and estuaries. It may also be a part of the Great Lakes or their connecting waters, and can include land as an integral component of the site.
  • Must be established as a reserved area by Federal, state, territorial, local, or tribal law or regulation.
  • Must be lasting, as in a permanent and year-round protected area.
  • Must have existing laws or regulations that are designed and applied to afford the site with increased protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein. The MPA list had not yet been developed as of May 2002.

The establishment of a MPA list or inventory would bring further clarity and regulatory integration to a legacy of environmental legislation affecting ocean habitats that began with the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) in 1972 (and its amendments and reauthorizations in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000). NMSA, Title III of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act , was signed by President Nixon on the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service . The Act set up the criteria for national sanctuaries that today only include 13 marine areas spanning approximately 18,000 mi2 (28,967.4 km2). As of May 2002, U.S. nationally-designated sanctuaries include:

  • Channel Islands. Designated as a marine sanctuary in 1980, the Channel Islands are located off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The unique ecosystem of the sanctuary is home to giant kelp forests and 27 species of whales and dolphins.
  • Cordell Bank. Cordell Bank is a submerged island on the edge of the continental shelf off the coast of San Francisco. The sanctuary, created in 1989, covers 526 mi2 (846.5 km2) that are home to a rich and diverse array of marine life.
  • Fagatele Bay. A tropical coral reef formed by a now-extinct volcano , Fagatele Bay is located off of Tutuila, an island of American Somoa. The sanctuary was designated in 1986.
  • Florida Keys. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 28,000 nautical mi2 (51,856 km2) surrounding the Florida Keys, and includes such unique features as coral reefs and mangroves. It was established in 1990.
  • Flower Garden Banks. A series of three sites off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, Flower Garden Banks was established in 1992 and 1996 as a national marine sanctuary (two sites in 1992 and the third in 1996). The area's unique coral reefs and twin salt domes host an abundance of tropical marine life.
  • Gerry E. Studds-Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This nutrient-rich expanse of Massachusetts Bay is home to the endangered right and humpback whales. It was designated in 1992.
  • Gray's Reef. Given sanctuary status in 1981 by President Carter, Gray's Reef is a sandstone reef with a "live-bottom habitat"attached corals, sponges, and other invertebrates. The sanctuary encompasses 17 mi2 (27.4 km2) off the coast of Georgia.
  • Gulf of the Farallones. The 1,255 mi2 (2,019.7 km2) Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary was created in 1981. Located 30 mi. (48 km) west of San Francisco Bay's Golden Gate Bridge, the Farallones sanctuary is home to a variety of seals , sea lions , and seabirds.
  • Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale. An estimated twothirds of the entire Pacific humpback whale population return to the Hawaiian Islands in the winter to breed, calve, and raise their young. The sanctuary was designated in 1992 to protect this important habitat .
  • Monitor. The first of only two archaeological sites of the 13 U.S. marine sanctuaries, the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary is the location of the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Monitor, the first ironclad Civil War battleship. The Monitor site was the first U.S. marine sanctuary, designated in 1975 in the coastal waters off North Carolina.
  • Monterey Bay. Another California coastal sanctuary, Monterey Bay is the largest of the marine sanctuaries at over 5,200 mi2 (8,368.4 km2). It was established in 1992.
  • Olympic Coast. The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1994 and covers 3,300 mi2 (5,310.7 km2 off the Washington State coast and Olympic Penninsula. It is home to a rich and complex intertidal ecosystem and a variety of seabirds and marine mammals.
  • Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve is the only designated sanctuary located in the Great Lakes. The 448 mi2 (721 km2) Lake Huron location, a historical shipping alley, is the site of at least 116 nineteenth and twentieth-century shipwrecks. It became a national sanctuary in 2000.

As of May 2002, NOAA had begun the designation process for a fourteenth national marine sanctuary, the Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, home to an estimated 7,000 marine species.

The NMSA calls for marine use management that balances the public's right for appropriate recreational and commercial use of protected areas with habitat conservation and ecosystem needs. Some areas may allow recreational use with permits, or during specific times of the year. Others may restrict certain uses completely. Because human use of marine resources frequently conflicts with biodiversity and conservation goals, this is a major challenge of the ongoing management of marine protected areas.

[Paula Anne Ford-Martin ]



Committee on the Evaluation, Design, and Monitoring of Marine Reserves and Protected Areas in the United States, Ocean Studies Board, National Research Council. Marine Protected Areas: Tools for Sustaining Ocean Ecosystems. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001.


"Presidential Documents. Executive Order 13158 of May 26, 2000." Federal Register Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000.


"National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) of 1972." Code of Federal Regulations 16 USC 1431 et seq.

U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of the Interior. Marine Protected Areas of the United States. [cited June 2, 2002]. <>.


National Marine Sanctuary System, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1305 East-West Highway, 11th Floor, Silver Spring, MD USA 20910 (301) 713-3125, Fax: (301) 713-0404, Email: [email protected],

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Marine Protected Areas

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