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What is a Marine Protected Area?
Some people interpret marine protected areas (MPAs) to mean areas closed to all human activities. Others interpret them as special areas established for conservation, but also allowing recreational and, sometimes, commercial use, much like national parks. In reality, "marine protected area" is a term that encompasses a variety of conservation and management methods in the United States.
In practice, MPAs are defined areas where natural and/or cultural resources are given greater protection than the surrounding waters. 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.
Defining Marine Protected Areas for the National System of MPAs
"...any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein."
To plan carefully for the national system, the MPA Center included criteria in its Framework for the National System of MPAs. The Framework defines the following five MPA key terms: "area," "marine environment,""reserved," lasting," and "protection." In addition, the framework states that in order for an MPA to participate in the national system, the managing agency or agencies must give approval and also describe how the MPA supports the national system's goals. To read the definitions of these criteria, go here.
Why do MPAs Matter?
Increasing impacts on the world's oceans and Great Lakes, caused by development, pollution, overfishing, and natural events, strain the health of our coastal and marine ecosystems. Some of these impacts can include decreased or damaged fish populations, bleached corals, threatened or endangered species, or limited job opportunities. MPAs are one type of ocean management tool that, when used effectively, help ensure healthy oceans. They may also protect historic artifacts such as shipwrecks that could otherwise be damaged by handling or theft.Marine protected areas:
Why is there so much confusion over MPAs?
The variety of names and uses of marine protected areas has led to confusion over what the term really means and where MPAs are used.
You may have heard the term "marine reserve" used in association with, or in place of, "marine protected area." Marine reserves usually refer specifically to no-take areas, where removing or destroying natural or cultural resources is prohibited. While all marine reserves are MPAs, not all MPAs are marine reserves. Marine reserves are rare in the United States. In fact, less than 1 percent of U.S. waters are no-take areas.
To add to the confusion, MPAs with similar sounding names may have different goals. Federal and state agencies may use the same MPA-related term, such as "conservation area" or "sanctuary," but activities in those areas may be regulated differently based on the agency's definition or purpose for that area. This complex level of definitions and establishment purposes underscores the need for basic understanding about how MPAs can be an effective ecosystem management tool.
Who Establishes and Manages U.S. MPAs?
Federal: Two agencies are the primary managers of federal MPAs. The Department of Commerce/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration manages national marine sanctuaries, fishery management zones, and, in partnership with states, national estuarine research reserves. The Department of the Interior manages MPAs through national parks and national wildlife refuges.
How can I participate in MPA decisions?
You don't have to live near the ocean to appreciate that many human activities impact our oceans, both economically and ecologically. Whether you're a farmer, fisherman, diver, kayaker, resident of a coastal community, or you just love the ocean, you have an incentive to get involved in decisions about marine protected areas. Your involvement is essential, and helps ensure that MPAs are effective.
Remember, marine resources are public resources. Government agencies manage resources in the public interest. You play a part in monitoring, restoring, and conserving our natural and cultural resources for present and future generations.