US Must Diversify Marine Protected Areas to Reap Full Benefits | Smithsonian Voices


Baker Island in the Pacific Ocean. The marine ecosystem here survives thanks to it being a National Wildlife Refuge and Marine Protected Area.
(Jim Maragos/US Fish & Wildlife Service)

In 2021, President Biden launched the America the Beautiful initiative, which included an ambitious “30 by 30 initiative.” The 30 by 30 initiative aims to conserve at least 30% of US land and water by 2030, to help reverse the negative trend of climate change. This plan emphasizes Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – spaces protected by local, state or federal governments, so that people and nature can benefit from their ecosystems.

However, the United States has not invested as much in other diverse ecosystems as it has in the central Pacific Ocean. According to a new research paper in Frontiers in ecology, approximately 96% of marine protected areas in the United States are in the Central Pacific. Outside of this region, less than 2% of the ocean waters of the United States have any protection, and the few bodies that do have generally “little” or “light” protection.

small island in the middle of an ocean, a large palm tree surrounded by other smaller trees.

Palmyra Atoll, a National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific Ocean, depends on the region’s local ecosystems to continue to thrive.

(Sara Maxwell)

The United States has more than 1,700 MPAs of one type or another,” said paper author Emmett Duffy, head of the Marine Biodiversity Lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “But most are quite small and many have very little protection.” Due to the little protection these MPAs enjoy, their species and ecosystems are still vulnerable.

Moreover, the differences between minimum protection and full protection MPAs are immense.

“Thinly protected MPAs have activities taking place there that have a high impact on biodiversity, such as large-scale infrastructure,” said Jenna Sullivan-Stack, lead author and research associate at Oregon State. University. Fishing still takes place in these MPAs, and when fishermen use high-impact gear on a large scale, they can further damage ecosystems. Unfortunately, this is true for most US MPAs outside of the central Pacific, which means that current protections are not sufficient to prevent damage.

The price of weaker protections

If the United States does not improve its system of MPAs to be more diverse, protective, and inclusive of more water bodies across the United States and territories, the authors said there is has a chance that we lose important benefits of many ecosystems in unprotected areas. regions and makes them more vulnerable than ever. The most threatened ecosystems are the Caribbean Sea, the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

Losses in these ecosystems could snowball into lost benefits for nearby communities. These include fewer large fish and more species and habitats at risk in these marine ecosystems.

Man in orange jacket testing water sample in lifeboat, water around boat, snowy mountains in background

Emmett Duffy samples water inside a marine protected area in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

(Peter Carey)

On the other hand, increasing the number and strength of MPAs will benefit the world by preserving ecosystems and biodiversity, which contributes to climate resilience. And it will also contribute to the food security of the communities, because the fish will become bigger and more abundant. Protecting certain areas from fishing may not harm the fishing industry, the authors said; in fact, it might benefit them.

“Paradoxically, many MPAs may actually benefit fisheries, as fish that grow within their protected zone are exported (‘overwhelmed’) to outside areas where they can be caught by fishermen,” Duffy explained.

What happens if the United States does not improve its protections?

“We are losing the benefits they can provide – for biodiversity but also climate resilience and social benefits, including equitable access to nature,” Sullivan-Stack said. Therefore, without improving the protection of MPAs, the world will suffer the worst consequences of climate change and some communities will lose access to nature.

However, historically, some key local stakeholders, including indigenous and fishing communities, have been excluded from MPA discussions while marine resources are central to their livelihoods and cultures.

Native Americans have generations of knowledge and wisdom that would be useful for MPAs and nature conservation in general. “Unfortunately, indigenous peoples have often been left out of conversations about conservation and management policy and implementation,” Duffy said.

“Local fishing communities also have important information to contribute, and their inclusion can lead to better MPA design and increased buy-in,” said SERC Fisheries Conservation Laboratory Manager Matthew Ogburn, who was not one of the authors of the article.

Two blocks of coral side by side, a scuba diver swimming towards them and the camera, dolphins visible in the background

Ashkhabad, a shipwreck in the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the sinking, the ecosystem has adapted to continue to thrive.


Charting a brighter path

The document highlighted several suggestions for how the United States could improve its management and creation of MPAs, in addition to creating more MPAs with biodiversity in mind.

First, the nation could improve its commitments to all current and future MPAs. Some have already been damaged by human actions such as overfishing, despite the protection of various authorities ranging from local to federal level.

Second, the United States could create a network of MPAs, allowing authorities to communicate with each other and strengthen MPAs in need of additional protection. The best way to achieve this is to build on existing programs, which would save both money and time while improving the management of MPAs.

Third, the United States could review its existing MPAs, to ensure that their protection will yield the greatest benefits. The United States must ensure that MPAs provide benefits, which is the main reason for their protection in the first place. This way, managers can redirect resources to where they are most needed.

None of these suggestions, however, will achieve as much as the United States expanding its MPAs to include more and larger areas of water outside of the central Pacific Ocean. If the United States does not do this, many communities beyond the Pacific Rim will be deprived of the immense benefits of MPAs.

Ecologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have also conducted research that contributes to MPAs outside the Pacific, including in the Chesapeake Bay. Ogburn gave some examples from the SERC’s Fisheries Conservation Lab: They tracked spawning migrations of female blue crabs to help develop the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Spawning Sanctuary. They also assess whether the Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuaries are functioning properly.

Yet SERC recognizes that its actions are not enough, not without the help of other organizations and communities, including Indigenous communities.

“The knowledge and wisdom they hold is extremely important in charting the way forward for the management of our American oceans,” Sullivan-Stack said. Without their help, the United States would not have been able to provide such protection for MPAs. However, as Duffy points out, Native Americans were not always invited to the discussions. Indigenous leaders, local stakeholders and other stewards of marine resources all need a seat at the table to ensure equitable protection of MPAs and conserve nature.

It is a fact that some communities have more access to MPAs than others, such as coastal cities. It is also an important factor in determining which areas should be protected more than others.

“I learned from my social scientist and other colleagues, such as Dr Ana Spalding and Angelo Villagomez, among others, how important it is to consider the who and how of MPAs, not just the what and where,” Sullivan-Stack says. “And this is not only important for the social outcomes of MPAs, but also for the ecological outcomes. AMPs just don’t work if you don’t pay attention to people.

The full research paper is available on the Frontiers of Ecology website at A summary is available at Oregon State University website.


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