Marine Protected Areas: What You Need To Know


Marine conservation got a major boost last week with the White House’s announcement of the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. President Barack Obama will more than quadruple the size of the existing monument, making it the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. At twice the size of Texas, the enlarged reserve will help protect over 7,000 marine species and improve ocean resilience to threats such as ocean acidification and climate change.


The newly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument will protect ecosystems and reefs like the one seen here in Hanauma Bay on the Hawaiian Island of Oʻahu. 

With the web abuzz with MPA news and articles, here is what you need to know:

What is an MPA?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines protected areas as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” Not all marine protected areas are “no-take,” or protected from uses that remove or damage plants or animals. In fact, no-take marine reserves are actually quite rare. Many MPAs involve recreational use including diving, boating and fishing.

What are MPAs used for?
Ocean conservationists use MPAs to protect ocean resources, such as fish stocks or coral reefs, from activities that might harm ocean life, such as fishing or boating. 


The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located between Cape Cod and Cape Ann in Massachusetts, is known for its superb whale watching. Did you know that scientists can identify individual whales from unique markings on their tail? See MacGillivray Freeman’s film Humpback Whales to learn more.

How many MPAs are there?
There are 1,600 MPAs in the United States alone, covering diverse habitats from intertidal zones and open ocean to the Great Lakes. Roughly 41% of US marine waters are protected in some shape or form, while no-take reserves occupy just 3% of US waters. The story worldwide is a little different. According to a 2015 study, 3.3% of the world’s oceans were protected by nearly 6,000 MPAs in 2013. 

Where are MPAs?
MPAs are located in marine environments all over the world. Use the National Marine Protected Area Inventory or MPA Atlas’s interactive map to find the closest MPA to you. 


MPAs are located in diverse marine environments across the United States and the world. Even the waters off of Laguna Beach, California, home to the One World One Ocean Campaign crew, are designated a no-take State Marine Reserve.

Are there any downsides to MPAs?
Some scientists think that increasing the number of MPAs may hurt ocean biodiversity by shifting fishing pressure elsewhere. Instead, scientists like University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn advocate altering fishery management techniques and increasing collaboration between fishery managers and conservationists to preserve ocean biodiversity.

What does this mean? Increasing the number of marine protected areas is part of the answer, but it’s not a stand-alone solution. MPAs might be best treated as one part of a unified conservation strategy that involves collaboration and diverse management across a wide range of natural resource professionals.

It’s also important to remember that creating MPAs through legislation is only half the battle. Resources are also needed to enforce the area’s protection. An MPA without enforcement is known as a “paper park” and offers little practical protection of the marine resources within it. 


Many marine protected areas allow fishing for recreational or commercial use, but may require stricter gear restrictions or catch limits than the surrounding area.

What is the future of MPAs?
In 2010, governments around the world signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreeing to protect 10% of the world’s coastal and marine areas by 2020 in line with Aichi Biodiversity Target 11. Now, a new movement, called for by the IUCN World Parks Congress in 2014, is underway to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. No matter how you slice it, the number and percentage of MPAs will likely increase in the coming decades. 

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