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Diving Deeper : Episode 2 (Feb. 9, 2009) —
What are Marine Protected Areas?

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host, Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is…What are Marine Protected Areas?

Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, are defined areas where natural or cultural resources are given greater protection than the surrounding waters. In the United States, MPAs span a range of habitats including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes.
To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Joe Uravitch on MPAs – what they are, where they exist, and why these areas are important to us. Joe is the director of NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center. Hi, Joe welcome to our show.

JOE URAVITCH: Thank you Kate, it’s nice to be here to discuss one of my favorite subjects, marine protected areas. Something I’ve worked on at NOAA for well over 20 years.

HOST: Joe, that’s great. First, can you start by telling us what the difference is between a marine protected area and a marine reserve?

JOE URAVITCH: Sure. People often confuse the two. Both are general terms. Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are special places in our oceans or Great Lakes that are established for the conservation of their natural or cultural resources. Marine reserves are actually a type of more restrictive MPA. Usually places called marine reserves will restrict the catching of fish, collection of shells, or other activities where there’s something removed from the area. Some places may even prohibit access for any purpose, including scientific research, without a permit.

HOST: So, because conservation is the main goal for our nation’s MPAs, are there restrictions on human activities to maintain this conservation goal?

JOE URAVITCH: Depending on what the MPA is intended to protect, yes, there can be restrictions on some or all activities within an MPA. However, most U. S. MPAs do not prohibit fishing and recreational uses throughout their boundaries. In fact, less than one percent of United States waters are no-take areas. An example of a marine protected area where uses are restricted for conservation purposes would be the National Marine Sanctuaries like the Florida Keys Sanctuary, which includes some areas that are off-limits to fishing and boating in order to protect sensitive habitats.

HOST: Joe, you mentioned that less than one percent of MPAs in the U.S. are no-take areas. What are no-take areas? Does this apply only to fishing?

JOE URAVITCH: Although they’re rare, no-take areas are MPAs or zones that allow human access, but that totally prohibit the extraction or destruction of natural or cultural resources. This applies to all activities that may cause harm. Usually fishing comes to mind as the biggest prohibited activity, but no-take areas have restrictions that are applicable to several different users.

No-take MPAs are sometimes used to protect spawning or nursery grounds, or to protect ecologically important habitats. Some are used as research and monitoring zones to serve as a baseline that allows comparisons by managers and scientists. Of the few no-take areas in U.S. waters, most are small and interspersed within larger areas that do allow consumptive uses. 

HOST: Going back to the conservation goal of MPAs, Joe, do MPAs have different conservation purposes?

JOE URAVITCH: Yes they do. Most MPAs have legally established goals, conservation objectives, and intended purposes. But we have over 150 laws in the United States, whether they’re federal, state, or territorial that manage and then establish MPAs.  Common examples include MPAs created to conserve the diversity of life in support of research and education; to protect the benthic, or bottom, habitat in order to recover over-fished stocks; or to protect shipwrecks or for marine education. These descriptors of an MPA are reflected in the site’s Conservation Focus, a category developed by NOAA’s MPA Center to describe the characteristics of the area. This Conservation Focus, in turn, influences many of the aspects of the site including its design, size, scale, and management strategies.

HOST: Since MPAs are established for the conservation of resources, can people interact with MPAs?

JOE URAVITCH: Yes, the majority of MPAs in the United States are open for most public uses including commercial and recreational fishing, diving, and boating. In fact, less than one percent of all U.S. waters are in closed areas.

HOST: Is there a chance that some of our listeners have already visited an MPA without even knowing it?

JOE URAVITCH: Oh without a doubt. If you’ve ever been diving, fishing, boating, swimming, or traveling by cruise ship, it’s likely you’ve been in an MPA at some time. Perhaps some of the best known MPAs are Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, California’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and Florida’s John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park.

HOST: I’m sure that quite a few of our listeners today are realizing that they have visited MPAs. Roughly how many MPAs are there in the United States?

JOE URAVITCH: There are over 1,700 MPAs in the United States established by federal, state, and territorial government. These areas cover 34 percent of United States’ marine waters, and vary widely in their purpose, legal authorities, managing agencies, and level of protection.

HOST: Where are most MPAs located in the United States?

JOE URAVITCH: When looking at MPAs in the United States, it’s easiest to take a regional perspective. Although MPAs are found in every region of the United States, the West Coast – California, Oregon, and Washington – has the highest number of MPAs.  However, the region with the largest area of MPAs is the Pacific Islands. This is because of the designation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument, which is one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world as well as the recent designation of three more national monuments in the western Pacific.  

HOST: Are there also MPAs in the Great Lakes?

JOE URAVITCH: Yes, MPAs are not strictly located in deep or coastal marine waters. In fact, there are six federal MPAs and more than 30 state-managed MPAs located within the Great Lakes. Most of the MPAs were created to protect cultural resources, like shipwrecks and historical artifacts. One example of a Great Lakes MPA is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. This MPA was created to protect the more than 160 shipwrecks it contains. It also is a Michigan State Underwater Preserve. You can find a natural-resource based MPA in Ohio at Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve on Lake Erie.

HOST: Thanks Joe. Many of our listeners may not be aware that shipwrecks and similar cultural resources are protected by MPAs. Do MPAs exist only in federal waters?

JOE URAVITCH: No, as I mentioned, they’re also included in state waters. The MPA Center spent several years inventorying all of the existing U. S. MPAs and we’ve found that nearly seventy percent of U.S. MPAs are managed by coastal states and territories, while fewer than thirty percent are under federal jurisdiction. Many state MPAs were created to protect specific coastal habitats and resources, like beaches and nesting bird habitats. Most of the federally managed MPAs include sites like the National Marine Sanctuaries, National Parks, seashores and wildlife refuges, and federal fishery closures.

HOST: It sounds like MPAs are fairly well established here in the U.S. Are MPAs strictly an American concept?

JOE URAVITCH: No, while MPAs have been used as a management tool in the United States for decades, many other countries are also focusing on the effectiveness and use of MPAs. For example, countries like New Zealand and Australia have been managing MPAs for over three decades. The MPA Center has recently been working with representatives from Canada and Mexico to develop a network of North American MPAs. This partnership will allow Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. to develop a set of cross-cutting conservation initiatives to help conserve important biological habitats and species in the waters of North America. This is especially important when you consider that many of the species found off the coast of the United States are migratory and therefore may also be found in international waters and the waters of other countries.

HOST: So, back to the U.S., how are MPAs managed here?

JOE URAVITCH: MPAs usually are managed by the federal or state agency that established them. Most have a variety of people on site including the MPA manager, educators, scientists, and park rangers for when laws have to be enforced. And many also have a strong set of volunteers to help with the program.

HOST: Joe, can you share with us an example or two on the effectiveness of MPAs or the conservation value that they’re providing?

JOE URAVITCH: There are a growing number of case studies that cite the effectiveness of MPAs. One study that comes to mind from the U.S. is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, specifically the Tortugas Ecological Reserve no-take zone within the Sanctuary. Between 2001 and 2007, scientists from NOAA used sonar and diver studies to document the abundance of diversity of fish communities in and outside the reserve. What they found was a significant increase in fish size and abundance in the no-take zones within the reserve. Similar results have been documented recently around California’s Channel Islands. This demonstrates that MPAs have proven to be effective, at least for some species, in both warm water and cold water habitats.

But beyond these tangible examples, MPAs provide a far greater conservation benefit.  No-take MPAs can act as reference sites, and help evaluate the changes that occur in ecosystems over time. Having reference sites will help discriminate between natural and human-induced changes to the ecosystem. In addition, by protecting the biodiversity in the MPA, the integrity of the ecosystem will be maintained and/or restored, thereby strengthening its utility as a reference site. 

HOST: Thanks Joe. It’s great to hear about the conservation benefits at both the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and California’s Channel Islands because of MPAs as well as the important role that MPAs serve as baselines to assess future changes in these areas. In today’s episode, we talked a little bit about the National MPA Center. Can you explain more on the role of the National Ocean Service in the MPA Center?

JOE URAVITCH: Sure. The National MPA Center was established in 2000, under a Presidential Executive Order. NOAA and the Department of the Interior implement the Executive Order through the National MPA Center. The MPA Center is located within the National Ocean Service’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. We work in partnership with federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local governments and stakeholders on the development and implementation of the National System of Marine Protected Areas. 

The Center does not manage MPAs nor does it have the authority to designate new ones.  However, we do work to improve MPA stewardship and effectiveness; facilitate international, national, and regional coordination of MPA activities; and support MPA programs which do have the authority to designate MPAs. Some people have referred to us as a trade association for MPAs.

There are many players involved in managing MPAs from those of us here at the MPA Center to the staff in the field with the local and regional knowledge and management authority. We all play an important role in the success of marine protected areas and it’s only through working together that we are likely to succeed in addressing the significant problems that face our oceans and Great Lake resources today.

HOST: Thanks Joe for joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper to help us learn more about marine protected areas, where they are located, and why they are important.  To learn more about what you can do to help protect MPAs, visit

That’s all for this week’s show, please tune in on February 23rd for our next episode on marine debris.