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Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are government-established areas that are shielded from intrusive human activity. They serve to protect coastal and ocean habitats and species, while providing recreational activities. They also serve as living laboratories for scientists to conduct research. In the United States, over 1,000 parks or other areas that include some marine or Great Lakes waters are designated as MPAs.

Examples of MPA programs include federal programs, including national marine sanctuaries, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and marine national monuments; partnership programs like the National Estuarine Research Reserves; and the state counterparts to these programs.

Research and conservation efforts at Mystic Aquarium have influenced the designation and use of MPAs in our area. Mystic Aquarium was instrumental in the science behind the establishment of off the coast of New England and the establishment of the Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve to protect a large area of Long Island Sound.

Our oceans and the benefits they provide are threatened by climate change and other human impacts at global, national, and local scales.

Why do we need MPAs?

The need for these protected areas is great. Overexploitation of species, impacts of human activities, rising seawater temperatures, and ocean acidification have led to rapid and continuing changes in marine ecosystems.  These changes are an unprecedented challenge for governments, ocean managers, and the stakeholders who depend on the ocean for global environmental health, economic benefits, and human wellbeing. 

How is Mystic Aquarium helping?

Deciding which areas should be protected, defining how they should be managed, and understanding how well they function is essential to conserving species, habitats, sustainable fisheries, and preserving biodiversity overall. In addition, oceans are one of the greatest resources to reduce excess CO2 – the primary gas that contributes to climate change and global warming -- in the atmosphere. Oceans absorb more than 30% of the excess CO2 produced by fossil fuels. They also absorb more than 90% of the excess heat produced by global warming.

Mystic Aquarium’s research program includes various topics centered around use of MPAs as a conservation tool. We are also involved in policy and management issues to enhance and expand MPA protections. And we partner with multiple organizations to share knowledge and join forces to have an even greater impact on protecting and conserving these valuable marine ecosystems. We are always expanding our formal and informal educational programming about conservation of marine wildlife and ecosystems.

 

Mystic Aquarium MPA Research

  • Seafloor Recovery: Commercial and recreational fishing industries have historic and important roles, unsustainable fishing practices can have significant negative impacts on marine ecosystems. Although much is known about how fishing affects shallow water ecosystems, less is understood about deep water environments, where most fishing effort occurs. Mystic Aquarium researchers conducted a 12-year study to assess the recovery of seafloor communities and fish behavior at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine.
  • Predator-Prey Interactions: Predation can have profound effects structuring marine communities and is critical for sustaining healthy ecosystems. Mystic Aquarium researchers are studying the behavioral ecology of piscivores (fish-eating fish) to better understand the interactions that link predators and prey. Our research to date suggests that hunting by mixed species groups of fish predators actually enhanced feeding opportunities for others on or near reefs and related structures. We are now exploring if predator-prey interactions are different inside and outside of protected areas.
  • Corals of the Deep: Deep Sea corals grow in dark, cold waters around the world. They are surprisingly diverse, with more than 3,300 identified species to date, and are among the oldest organisms living in the oceans. Yet they are being threatened by fishing and other human impacts. Because they are slow growing, it can take decades for coral colonies to recover from damage. Mystic Aquarium researchers are mapping the extent of corals on the outer continental shelves and in the deep ocean to learn how we can balance human activities such as fishing, offshore wind, and minerals exploration with conservation.
  • Mapping Long Island Sound: We need to know how natural resources are distributed to effectively plan how to protect them and use them sustainably. Mystic Aquarium is participating in a years-long effort to map the ecological resources in Long Island Sound. This ecological mapping will illustrate different habitats, provide depth information, and show patterns of water flow, among other features. This work will help the states of Connecticut and New York, the U.S. EPA, and other agencies make informed decisions that balance human use of these waters with conservation goals.

Policy and Conservation

We apply the results of all our research on MPAs to support planning for conservation of vulnerable species, habitats, and communities. We share the knowledge we gain with policymakers, managers, and stakeholders to help them develop effective and evidence-based decisions on how to manage these areas. We also share the information we learn with the public to build appreciation for our ocean planet.

We also participate in multiple policy and management initiatives, including:

  • Enhancement of conservation provisions for reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries and Conservation Act (MSA).
  • Enhancement of conservation provisions for reauthorization of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.
  • Passage of the Forage Fish Act for integration to MSA.
  • Passage of bait fish bill in Connecticut General Assembly.
  • Enhancement of conservation alternatives through Fishery Management Councils and Regional Ocean Planning Councils.
  • Enhancement of conservation in management plans of National Marine Sanctuaries.
  • Conservation of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems through international institutions (Regional Fishery Management Organizations, Convention on Biological Diversity).