In 2010, there were more than 6,800 MPAs worldwide, representing about 1.2 percent of the oceans’ surface area. By comparison, more than 12 percent of the land area in the world is under some form of protection. Development of an MPA is not a matter of a formula where “one size fits all.” Each proposed location requires special studies to determine what is to be protected, the existing threats to that environment, and a minimum size needed to maintain a viable biosystem. Also, permitted uses within the site must be established because only about 1 percent of the global locations are “no take,” where no activity is permitted. So the process is neither easy nor quick. Each MPA must be established based on best possible scientific research and careful inclusive planning by all the stakeholders. Understandably, there will be multiple conflicts between resource users and conservationists as well as between various levels of government.
Permitted public-use activities in MPAs vary widely. Some allow controlled resource exploitation and tourism as a means to earn revenue for the controlling governments. To date, only a few are closed to all exploitation activity. This is similar to the restricted uses of U.S. government–owned land areas. However, while more than 27 percent of U.S. national land area is devoted to protected uses such as parks, biological refuges, and wilderness areas, less than 5 percent of the nation’s ocean areas is similarly regulated.
Where there are prohibitions on harvesting of living marine resources at a site, it has been found that this led to improved fisheries in adjacent ocean areas. This is because the restricted site provides a healthy nursery for fish stocks to breed and safely grow. The result is increasing populations to the point where excess numbers eventually move out of the area to avoid crowding. They then become a legitimate resource for commercial and sport fisheries in the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, at present there are too few “no-take” MPAs.
The United States pioneered marine reserves when it established the National Marine Sanctuaries System 40 years ago. In 1975, the first was the wreck site of the ironclad USS Monitor , primarily a cultural reserve. Sanctuaries-program management was assigned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce. By 2012, a total of 14 geographically and environmentally diverse sanctuaries had been created, including one National Monument. They range from the far western Pacific at American Samoa to the Great Lakes and east to the Stellwagen Bank off New England. One of the world’s largest protected marine areas is the Papah?anaumoku?akea Marine National Monument. At 132,000 square miles, it covers an area equal to 83 percent of the total area of all the U.S. marine sanctuaries combined.
In 2000, a presidential executive order created the National Marine Protected Areas Program also to be managed by NOAA. Including the former 14 marine sanctuaries, there are now 410 MPAs in the United States. This represents about 6 percent of the world total.
In the past few years the rate of development for MPAs has greatly accelerated as tensions between conservationists and resource users have moderated through education and experience. Tensions can be healthy and will always be present, but as we learn that everyone benefits from setting aside these ocean reserves, they will achieve even greater acceptance. Some experts have suggested that MPAs comprising 20–30 percent of the world’s ocean surface would be an idea goal for healthy conservation. So it is imperative that more “keep out” signs be posted in “no-take” zones before some living species are gone forever. Then we all lose.