What is a Marine Protected Area Anyway?

Giant Clam in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
Montipora coral headPink crustose coralline algaeRose Atoll Marine National Monument and is a school of goatfish
June 2013
Rachel Keylon, Senior Ocean Policy Fellow at the Marine Conservation Institute.
Dive in to the deep world of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and learn how they affect the ocean and where they can be found!

For sailors it is hard to imagine not being able to enjoy the wonders of the open expanse of the world's ocean, which encompasses some of the most beautiful places on earth. But today the ocean is facing many threats, including pollution, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, climate change, and ocean acidification. Thankfully some of the areas in our ocean have been protected from some of these threats and are relatively untouched by humans. To give our ocean a chance of surviving in this ever-changing world, scientists recommend preserving some of the most productive and biologically diverse places as no-take marine protected areas.

What is an MPA?

There are many names for marine protected areas, including marine parks, marine refuges, marine reserves, and marine sanctuaries. With all this different terminology being used, we often hear the question; What is a marine protected area? Why are there different names for MPAs and what do they mean? And how do they affect me, as a sailor?

MPAs are a tool used to conserve parts of the ocean that may be ecologically, historically, and/or culturally important. The idea behind an MPA is to protect unique areas and allow species to thrive, with a no-take MPA being the gold standard. Marine protected areas create refuges where marine life is protected from some or all-human pressures allowing organisms to grow, thrive, and replenish the broader ocean. In the United States and around the globe, MPAs have been shown to benefit the marine ecosystem and coastal communities in several ways:

  • Allowing marine species to recover. Even heavily utilized ocean areas can rebound to original levels of productivity and species diversity as untouched ocean environments after being protected as a MPA.
  • Protect essential marine habitat from destructive fishing practices. Fishing practices like using dynamite to stun fish and trawling cause major damage to seafloor habitats. MPAs usually restrict the most damaging fishing practices, preserving vital habitats.
  • Thriving habitats and species. As fish and other species within marine protected areas recover and begin to thrive, marine life expands into surrounding non-protected areas that can be fished often providing more and larger fish for local communities.

The use of MPAs has been embraced on a global scale with countries all over the world protecting marine life and coastal ocean habitat. Some nations have even gone so far as to designate large portions of their exclusive economic zones as marine protected areas, such as Chagos Island in the Indian Ocean and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

How Do MPAs Affect Me?

No-take MPAs are firmly enforced and prohibit extractive uses and other activities such as commercial and recreational fishing. Others are minimally restrictive with only moderate restrictions on specific ecological threats like oil drilling or bottom trawling. Unfortunately, the regulations and names associated with each MPA and its protections vary wildly. One of the biggest struggles for MPAs is when regulations are not followed either purposefully or unknowingly.

As an ocean user, you should educate yourself about protected areas that you may encounter during your coastal and high seas travels. By learning more about MPAs and their management, you can improve compliance with the regulations set up to protect these vital ocean areas, and help our oceans and the life within them recover.

Some great resources you can use to learn more about specific MPAs and their regulations include:

  • MyNOAACharts mobile app, which can be downloaded at Google Play Store
  • MPAtlas.org, an online tool which provides information on all of the world's MPAs
  • Country-specific travel guides and travel bureau websites

US Pacific Island MPAs

In 2006 and 2009, the US created four large MPAs in the Pacific Ocean. These large MPAs (PapahânaumokuâkeaRose AtollMarianas Trench, and Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monuments) were designated by President George W. Bush to protect the pristine environments, numerous endangered species, and areas of cultural and historical significance such as Midway Atoll. Overall, these areas are some of the most protected areas on Earth with most restrictions on both commercial and recreational fishing, and many of the islands at the hearts of these Monuments are National Wildlife Refuges in which most human activities are prohibited. Sailors are permitted to traverse the waters of the marine monuments but in most of these areas are not allowed to fish, drop anchor, discharge pollutants or ballast, or land on the islands. However due to their extremely remote locations-the very reason they are so healthy-these MPAs are difficult to monitor and protect. For that reason, the federal agencies count on sailors to voluntarily comply with regulations to protect these important areas where endangered sea turtles and shorebirds nest, and endangered reef fish and marine mammals swim. You can help by following the regulations and refraining from stopping and landing at these natural island refuges.  Your action will go a long way to protect the health of our ocean.


Take Action

You can make a difference. Follow these steps to create a positive future for the ocean.

Take Action
  • Learn more about marine protected areas, including the marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean.
  • Download information on MPAs to your smartphone or tablet in advance of your next sailing expedition.
  • Spread your knowledge by sharing this information with family and friends.
  • Use sustainable sailing practices, some of which can be found in our resources.
  • Support ocean conservation by making a donation to Sailors for the Sea.
  • Donate to the Marine Conservation Institute to support efforts to create and safeguard marine protected areas.