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|Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)|
A marine protected area (MPA) is exactly what it sounds like it would be. It is an area, within the marine setting, that is, in some way, protected from certain human activity. Though it sounds quite simple, systems and designations of MPAs are quite complex and confusing (including that of the United States). There are differing levels of MPAs – some areas allow certain activities, like recreational fishing, while others do not. Even finding out if a certain area near you is designated as an MPA is quite a challenge. Most MPAs are small – less than 1 km2 – and you probably have been to one without even knowing!
The term “marine protected area” is quite broad; MPAs can take different forms and include different levels of protection for various areas and/or animals. The basic criterion is that some restriction has been created regarding the contact humans can have with the organisms within a certain area. Some common forms of MPAs include marine sanctuaries and no-take reserves. Sanctuaries can be tailored to protect certain groups of organisms, such as sharks or marine mammals, while commercial fishing or other similar activities are still allowed. For example, in a shark sanctuary, you might be able to catch a sea bass and take it home for dinner, however you are NOT allowed to fish for or harvest sharks. A no-take marine reserve is the most extreme level of protection. In these areas, it is not permissible to take anything (alive, dead, or non-living – including rocks!) from the waters. Boats cannot even drop anchor inside many reserves in order to prevent damage to the seafloor.
One reason is the intense amount of fishing pressure that people put on the oceans. In today’s world, commercial fishing operations possess technology that allows them to harvest unprecedented amounts of fish at very efficient rates. Because of this, marine animals now have the need for areas of habitat where they are not subject to this mortality. Populations can rebound much more effectively without pressure from fishing. MPAs provide much needed relief for marine communities.
Another reason is ecotourism. Many small, island nations depend on living marine organisms in order to provide a large source of revenue for their economies. It is for reasons like this that many nations are sparked to create marine mammal and shark sanctuaries
The goal of an MPA is to allow marine ecosystems to operate without the constant interference and stress that human activity exerts upon them. Depending on the level of protection that the MPA is designated to, scientific reports have shown that MPAs are very effective of enhancing the character of the area within the MPA and the area outside it.
The fact that MPAs benefit the habitats outside the MPA itself is called the spillover effect. Picture it this way: a stressed fish population is allowed to grow within the safety of the MPA. The increased production and population growth will eventually become robust and will extend beyond the boundaries of the MPA. In addition, many fish eggs are spawned and float on ocean currents to distant locations; with fish spawning within the protection of an MPA, larger quantities of eggs are able to be produced and fish populations far and wide will benefit.
One way that environmental groups are marketing MPAs is by saying that they will actually help commercial fishermen – because of the spillover effect. Fishermen, and their political representatives, would generally reject the idea of MPAs because it restricts the amount of area that fishermen can operate in. However, the spillover effect argues that by fishing along the edges of MPAs, their operations can be more profitable as well as more sustainable.
MPAs have other positive effects; a preserved, natural marine ecosystem provides commercially exploited species an area to thrive and breed. They preserve more than biological aspects of these areas; many marine areas are sources of historical and archeological artifacts, as well as shipwrecks. MPAs serve as a way to honor and remember these meaningful parts of our past.
The United States has an extensive network of MPAs, operated and enforced by a number of organizations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service institutes many small reserves and refuges for wildlife, as well as local, regional, and state environmental agencies. However, the most significant contribution to MPAs comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the official National Marine Sanctuaries department.
There are 14 official National Marine Sanctuaries of the United States, with their location designated on the map below:
Each sanctuary is a little different, depending on its location and what species it holds. However, this system is unique in that the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) is official United States federal law that prohibits the destruction of any marine resource within these areas, as well as giving the power to the Secretary of Commerce to designate new areas as National Marine Sanctuaries. You can check out the NMSA for yourself here.
Our national marine sanctuaries provide essential protected habitat for dozens of fascinating and rare species, such as right whales, loggerhead turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, blue whales, albatross, stellar sea lions, and more. These sanctuaries provide protection to habitats, shipwrecks, and all organisms that make these places home and contribute to the spectacular marine character of our country and our oceans.
The most spectacular of our national marine sanctuaries is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, located northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Following a chain of coral atolls, this 140,000 square mile reserve is home to 7,000 marine species; and 25% of those species are found nowhere else in the world.
Here in the northeast, the closest national sanctuary is Stellwagen Bank. Located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank is actually an underwater plateau that rises from the deep and attracts a great deal of marine life. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is home to humpback, sei, right, and fin whales as well as Kemp’s ridley and leatherback sea turtles. Many species of fish, including tuna, cod, and herring migrate here to feed. Stellwagen Bank is also home to over 50 shipwrecks, which attract SCUBA divers from all over the world and provide a necessary reminder to the power of the oceans and the respect they deserve.
Visit the wonderful website of the National Marine Sanctuaries by clicking here. It has links to the individual websites for all 14 sanctuaries, as well as information about the whole system.
In 2005, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity set the goal for global ocean MPA coverage to 10% by 2012. Currently, MPAs cover around 6.3 million km2 of total ocean area – about 2%. Relatively speaking, this is a tiny amount of space. Additionally, it is far short of the 10% goal. In order to reach the 10% coverage goal, the world needs another 27 million km2 of MPAs – that’s an area over 3 times the size of the continental United States.
Despite the fact that we are falling short of this goal, recent developments have shown signs of serious encouragement in terms of the creation of MPAs and marine sanctuaries. For example:
These events represent a new initiative to protect worldwide marine resources. Hopefully, nations contemplating instituting new MPAs will be encouraged to do so. MPAs represent a positive shift in baseline views toward the need to protect marine habitats, and hopefully we will see more headlines like these in the future.
There are over 5,800 MPAs worldwide. However, most are very small (< 1 km2) and just making additional small MPAs does not achieve much when thinking about the 27 million km2 that we need to achieve 10% coverage. The new trend, as you can see with the stories above, is to create singular, massive MPAs. The level of focus is shifting from smaller, place-specific MPAs to mega-sized MPAs, preserving the natural resources and character of entire geographic regions.
Test your knowledge about marine protected areas!
1) The United States has ___________ officially designated National Marine Sanctuaries.
2) The largest US National Marine Sanctuary is _________________.
3) Marine protected areas are beneficial because they:
4) “Marine protected area” is a very specific term, and all MPAs have the same rules and regulations.
5) The goal for worldwide MPA coverage is 10% of all ocean area. Currently, 6.3 million km2 of ocean area is designated as an MPA, which amounts to _________%.
Key: 1) d 2) c 3) e 4) b 5) b
BONUS: “X” out this window, and spell Papahanaumokuakea!
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