What the heck is a marine protected area?

So, let’s define what Marine Protected Areas (a.k.a. MPAs) really are and clear all misconceptions about them. The official definition of an MPA by U.S. Executive Order 13158 (May 26, 2000):

“…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.”

Many people think that MPAs are no-take zones; however, this is not the fact. They vary widely in purpose and level of protection, legal authorities, agencies, management methods and restriction on human uses. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. waters are no-take areas, also called marine reserves, while the majority is multiple-use areas that often both allow consumptive and non-consumptive activities, such as fishing, diving, boating and swimming. In a reserve, no fishing is permitted nor any removal of material or sea life. Permitted recreational activities are restricted. No dredging, dumping, construction or any other direct disturbance is allowed. The no-take marine reserves are sometimes used as scientific research or monitoring zones to serve as a baseline that allow comparisons by managers and scientists of undisturbed control areas to those impacted by human activities. Some are used to protect spawning or nursery grounds of certain marine species, or ecologically important deep-water habitats.

MPAs don’t only exist in the U.S. but also in many other countries throughout the world. Today there are more than 1,600 MPAs in the U.S. waters, which cover approximately 40% of the country’s waters. No-take MPAs occupy only about 3% of all U.S. waters. The majority of U.S. MPAs are located within the Virginian Atlantic marine ecoregion, which extends along Cape Hatteras northward to Cape Cod. Globally less than 1% of the world’s oceans are protected. The global percentage doesn’t sound enough given the worldwide collapse in fisheries and environmental damage and disruption to ecosystem structure and function along with that.

MPAs can include:

  •  reefs
  •  seagrass beds
  •  tidal lagoons
  • mudflats
  • saltmarshes
  • mangroves
  • rock platforms
  • shipwrecks
  • archeological sites
  • underwater areas on the coast
  • seabeds in deep water

MPAs have been used throughout U.S. waters for over a century. Familiar examples include National Marine Sanctuaries such as the Hawaiian Humpback Whale Sanctuary, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, or its state counterparts and smaller scale ones such as the Fishery Management Areas and Marine Life Conservation Districts in Hawai’i. Depending on location, MPAs can take different names.

In the U.S. MPAs are established at all levels of government for different purposes and are managed by federal agencies (the primary managers of MPAs), states, territories or commonwealths, or tribes. Sovereign treaty rights allow some tribal authorities to designate areas or co-manage areas with states. In addition, local efforts can feed into federal processes. An example is the deep coral habitats in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands protected by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council upon local request.

Why do the establishment of MPAs matter? It basically has to do with the fact that protection of certain bodies of water cannot be left to the human conscience anymore, and some places are more important than others in terms of biodiversity or other factors. Development, pollution, or overfishing can lead to decreased or damaged fish populations, bleached corals, threatened or endangered species. MPAs are one of the management tools that can help when used effectively.

In my next post, I will talk about the Waikīkī Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD): its background and the regulations in the MLCD!


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