What is a marine protected area?

Marine protected areas conserve, manage, and protect.

A marine protected areas

The majority of marine protected areas in the United States are multiple-use sites, meaning fishing, boating, surfing, diving, and other recreational activities are allowed.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) in the U.S. come in a variety of forms and are established and managed by all levels of government. There are marine sanctuaries, estuarine research reserves, ocean parks, and marine wildlife refuges. Each of these sites differ. MPAs may be established to protect ecosystems, preserve cultural resources such as shipwrecks and archaeological sites, or sustain fisheries production.

There is often confusion and debate regarding what the term "marine protected area" really means. Some people interpret MPAs to mean areas closed to all human activities, while others interpret them as special areas set aside for recreation (e.g., national parks) or to sustain commercial use (e.g., fishery management areas). These are just a few examples of the many types of MPAs.

In reality, “marine protected area” is a term that encompasses a variety of conservation and management methods in the United States. If you have been fishing in central California, diving near a shipwreck in the Florida Keys, camping in Acadia, snorkeling in the Virgin Islands, or hiking along the Olympic Coast, you were probably one of thousands of visitors to an MPA.

In the U.S., MPAs span a range of habitats, including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes. They also vary widely in purpose, legal authorities, agencies, management approaches, level of protection, and restrictions on human uses.


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.

Classifying MPAs

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.

MPA Inventory

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.

MPA Programs

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.


Did you know?

There are more than 1,200 marine protected areas in U.S. waters.
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Last updated: 06/25/18
Author: NOAA
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