Marine protected areas (MPAs) are areas of the oceans or Great Lakes that are protected for a conservation purpose. If you have ever gone fishing in central California, diving in the Florida Keys, or boating in Thunder Bay, you have visited one of these MPAs. In the United States, there are over 1,600 MPAs spanning a range of habitats, including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes. Nearly all of these areas allow multiple uses. About 41 percent of U.S. marine waters are protected in some way, with three percent in highly protected no-take MPAs to protect sensitive species and habitats.
National system of MPAs
With different federal, state, tribal and local agencies managing the more than hundreds of marine protected areas (MPAs) located all over the U.S., what is going on in each can get a little disjointed and opportunities to coordinate or share lessons learned can be missed. So wouldn't it be nice if there were some system to coordinate planning and management of our nation's MPAs? Guess what? There is!
Managed by the federal government, the national system of MPAs brings work together at the regional and national levels to achieve common objectives for conserving the nation's important natural and cultural resources. The MPAs in the system are still managed independently, but they now have a framework to tie them all together. There are currently 437 members of the national system of MPAs. Over time, the National Marine Protected Areas Center will continue to work with existing U.S. MPAs to connect, strengthen, and expand the nation’s MPA programs.
One question many people have about marine protected areas (MPAs) is whether or not there are restrictions associated with the use of these areas. The answer is that...it depends. MPAs are established for the conservation of their natural or cultural resources. While there can be restrictions on certain activities in MPAs, nearly all U.S. MPAs allow multiple uses, including fishing. Some areas, such as marine reserves, are more restrictive, limiting the catching of fish, collection of shells, or other activities where something may be removed from the area. Marine reserves are sometimes referred to as “no take” MPAs, and occupy about three percent of U.S. waters.
Because marine protected areas (MPAs) vary widely, the National MPA Center developed a system to help describe these areas using characteristics that are common to most MPAs. The characteristics include conservation focus, level of protection, permanence of protection, constancy of protection, and ecological scale of protection. The end result is a common vocabulary for MPA managers, something that comes in handy when exchanging ideas and lessons learned or working to identify additional areas that should be protected.
Interested in finding out if there are marine protected areas (MPAs) where you live or have visited? Check out the Marine Protected Areas Inventory. This online tool lets you use an interactive map to view the MPA Inventory sites and associated data, query sites by specific conservation attributes, or to search and view sites by region. Managers can use the Inventory for marine management and conservation planning. In fact, the primary purpose of the Inventory is to maintain baseline information on MPAs to the assist in the development of the National System of MPAs.
NOAA's National MPA Center
The National MPA Center was established in 2000 following Executive Order 13158. The executive order was issued to help protect the significant natural and cultural resources within the marine environment for the benefit of present and future generations. The order directs the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Interior, and other federal agencies to work closely with states, territories, tribes, fishery management councils, and groups with an interest in marine resource conservation to develop a scientifically-based, comprehensive National System of MPAs representing diverse U.S. marine ecosystems.
The MPA Center is located within NOAA's National Ocean Service and is a division of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
Science and stewardship
The MPA Center uses science to assess the nature of MPAs and how they are used to sustain healthy marine ecosystems. The MPA Center focuses its objectives on enhancing MPA stewardship by strengthening capacity for planning, management, and evaluation. For example, the MPA Center is working with other MPA programs to share lessons about how they are planning for and adapting to climate change.
There are many different types of MPAs including national marine sanctuaries and national estuarine research reserves.
The 13 national marine sanctuaries, managed directly by NOS, and the 28 national estuarine research reserves, managed by states in partnership with NOS, are conserved areas that are also hubs for recreation, research, and education. Other types of MPAs include national parks, national wildlife refuges, and state areas for the protection of habitat, fish, and wildlife. The National System of MPAs is helping to weave all of these areas together into an effective network that can protect species that move through various habitats during different life stages, and that can meet common challenges faced by MPA programs.
The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is not only the largest conservation area in the U.S., it's one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It's larger than all of America’s national parks combined!