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New Analysis Shows Eight Percent of U.S. Marine Waters are Protected

June 1, 2012
Two people kayak in a marine protected area

A new analysis of U.S. data show that the majority of our nation's MPAs allow human uses, including fishing, swimming, and kayaking.

A recent analysis of updated data shows that eight percent of our U.S. marine waters are currently designated as marine protected areas (MPAs). The majority of these areas are open to fishing and other activities. U.S. sites are catalogued in the recently updated MPA Inventory.

The eight percent figure does not include MPAs specifically established to sustain fisheries production, which often have specific restrictions on fishing gear over large ocean areas. Other inventory analyses including these fishery MPAs, however, show that 92 percent of the area within U.S. MPAs allows some type of activity, and 85 percent is open to fishing.

A whale jumping

MPAs are defined areas where natural and/or cultural resources are given greater protection than the surrounding waters.

The MPA Inventory shows that more than two-thirds of all U.S. MPAs were created, at least in part, to conserve natural heritage values, such as biodiversity, ecosystems, or protected species. About a quarter of sites focus on sustainable production, such as those established to recover overfished stocks, protect species readily taken as bycatch, or preserve essential fish habitats. The remaining MPAs (approximately ten percent) were established to conserve our nation’s cultural heritage. 

Developed with extensive input from state and federal MPA programs and drawn from other publically available data, the MPA inventory contains information on more than 1,700 sites and is the only such comprehensive dataset in the nation. Information in the inventory is current as of March 2012. Data in the updated MPA Inventory can be viewed online through an interactive MPA mapping tool


MPAs are conservation areas that include the marine environment, such as some national parks and national wildlife refuges, national marine sanctuaries, and similar areas managed by state, local, and tribal governments. MPAs are designed to protect natural and cultural marine resources, and many allow a variety of activities such as fishing, recreation, and research.