Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

The creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) may be the single most important step we can take to protect what we all need to survive – a healthy ocean environment.

MPAs are places that are set aside to provide sanctuaries for the species that live there and migrate through. The size of MPAs can vary from one acre to hundreds of thousands of square miles. MPAs can take many forms, from closed areas, locally managed MPAs, harvest refugia, to multiple-use areas and biosphere reserves. The types of restrictions vary from “no take” reserves (no fishing or extraction of any kind) to limited commercial and recreational activities like those found in a National Marine Sanctuary.
Less than four percent of the ocean is currently protected, lagging considerably behind the 16 percent of land that is protected. Considerable progress has been made in the last decade however. In 2006, only an estimated 0.65% of the ocean was protected. Today there are approximately 6,800 Marine Protected Areas, only half of which are classified as “no take” marine reserves, completely closed to fishing and other extractive activity.
Many of the MPAs in the world are “paper parks” with little restriction or enforcement. Depending on where MPAs are established, the authority for managing and monitoring can be local, state, community, territorial, or national. Given the limited number of sanctuaries and their limited protection, many continue to be stressed from extensive and often illegal use. There is an urgent need for the continued creation of MPAs and better management and enforcement of existing sanctuaries.
Healthy, intact marine ecosystems are important for a number of reasons. Two common examples of our dependency on the ocean’s health are seen in our food supply and our air quality. Saline-based fish provide 500 million people with their primary source of protein and 3 billion people rely on fish to fill at least 20% of their protein needs.

With ocean health deteriorating, fish are not reproducing as efficiently therefore decreasing the supply available to the people dependent upon them for food. Marine protected areas create havens in which food for the fish is plentiful and the surrounding conditions are healthier thus giving them a safe place to grow and reproduce to increase their population. These designated areas protect one of our most valuable resources derived from the ocean. It may seem as though the air has nothing to do with the ocean, however they are undeniably linked in a way that hugely benefits our world.

The ocean is able to absorb amounts of CO2 out of our terribly polluted atmosphere. Especially in current times when we are spewing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is very important to protect the ocean by any means possible. The average annual 2.5 billion tons of CO2 that the ocean absorbs, found by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, doesn’t just disappear and stop causing problems. In fact, it is a major contributor to ocean acidification. Protected zones will allow the natural resilience of the ocean to take over and the large amounts of CO2 that the ocean is absorbing will more easily be dealt with. Fish feces, an alkaline substance, help to counteract the acidity created in the water from the high CO2 levels.

One way that protected zones help with the acidity is by allowing more fish to live and reproduce thus inherently creating more alkaline feces. With a healthier ocean that can effectively absorb and manage more CO2, the atmospheric quality rises. MPA’s allow the ocean to heal and reach its full resilience capabilities in order to most effectively balance the CO2 levels in our atmosphere.
  • Serve as a preventive or insurance policy to maintain, protect and restore healthy marine ecosystems
  • Satisfy human needs by ensuring renewable resources are used sustainably, while minimizing user conflict
  • Give local communities and stakeholders stewardship and control over their own resources and control over their future well-being, stability, and prosperity
  • Provide education, outreach, and awareness to marine ecosystems and foster a respectful attitude that increases support for marine conservation
  • Improve fisheries by emigration of fish and dispersal of larvae into depleted areas
  • Provide a good environment for scientific study and measurements of the effectiveness of protected areas
  • In the United States, the most common and well know MPA network is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) System, managed by NOAA’s National Ocean Service (NOS). Over 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters are incorporated into the 14 sites of the NMS system. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/

    Also included in the U.S. inventory are the 27 National Estuarine Research Reserves, managed by states in partnership with NOS. NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service manage other MPAs.

    More than 10 percent of our land in the US is protected in national parks, wilderness areas or wildlife refuges; however, less than one percent of our ocean is protected.


    Worldwide, there are over 161,000 protected areas on land (as of October 2010), representing about 12 percent of the world's land surface area. By contrast, only about 2 percent of the world's oceans are included in the world's ~ 6,800 Marine Protected Areas. As mentioned previously on this site, only 2 percent of the MPAs are classified as “no take” marine reserves, completely closed to fishing and other extractive activity.

    Most of the MPA’s in the world are “paper parks” with little restriction and enforcement. The largest MPA in the world is in New Caledonia, a small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean. It spans, according to Mother Nature network, over 320 million acres of surface area. This protected space encompasses and provides a safe and healthy home for coral reefs, marine mammals, fish, sharks, birds and turtles.
    Marine “no take” reserves offer the most promise for our oceans. Taking a holistic ecosystem-based approach, no take zones are the most essential designation needed to maintain, protect and restore the health of marine ecosystems from multiple stressors. In no take zones, marine habitats are protected from harmful fishing practices, allowing habitats to remain intact and free from destruction. The fish are able to grow large and as a result, have more off-spring, increasing the number of fish that can swim out of the reserve and into neighboring regions.
  • Be a champion for Marine Protected Areas throughout the world
  • Learn which regions are being targeted for MPA status and support the efforts
  • NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program is engaging the public to expand marine protection in U.S. waters – learn about the Site Selection Process and get involved
  • Talk with your legislative leaders and let them know you support new MPAs
  • Write letters to the editor supporting MPAs
  • When you travel or dive, visit MPAs and see the world difference they can make