What are Marine Protected Areas?
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas of ocean designated for special
protection to enhance the management of marine resources. Throughout the
country, there are specific areas of land that are designated as national
or state parks. These areas protect the land and the animals that live
there by restricting the public's activities. Some areas of the ocean
also offer protection. Any marine area designated by federal, state, or
local authorities to protect its resources is known as a marine protected
area, or MPA. The Gulf of Maine has both coastal and offshore MPAs, some
designated by the state, and some by the federal government.
There are many kinds of MPAs, created and regulated by a variety of
agencies that control various marine activities. The concept of MPAs has
not been around nearly as long as that of land-based parks, so there are
far fewer MPAs protecting life in the oceans. Most MPAs offer only partial
Marine Protected Areas have attracted increasing attention in recent
years as a tool to conserve biodiversity and fish resources in the marine
environment. There is mounting concern over human impacts such as declining
fish stocks and altered sea floor habitats. As evidence of human activities
accumulate, the need arises for improved management and increased protection.
MPAs are seen by many as an important component of an ecosystem-based
approach to ensuring the sustainability of both the ecosystems and the
resources, while maintaining the cultural and historical values associated
with past and current human use of the marine environment.
MPAs in the Gulf of Maine
A number of MPAs already exist in the Gulf of Maine. Perhaps the most
widely known is the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This 2200
square kilometer sanctuary was established in 1992 and covers a mostly
sandy bank extending between Cape Cod and Cape Ann in Massachusetts Bay.
The only activity actually banned in the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary, by
the legislation that created it, is the underwater mining of sand and
gravel. This protects a variety of plants and animals living on the sea
floor. Other restrictions can be imposed through management plans, which
are issued periodically. The New England Fisheries Management Council
controls the fisheries management in this sanctuary.
Other MPAs in the Gulf of Maine include the National Estuarine Research
Reserve System, which provides substantial protection for three coastal
locations. Numerous seasonal and year-round fisheries closures in the
Gulf of Maine are in some respects the equivalent of MPAs, although their
permanence is less secure, and their focus is limited to fisheries.
Many scientists and fisheries managers have been looking to MPAs as
a way to provide a more complete set of protections to the resources of
the Gulf of Maine; both the biodiversity and the commercial fisheries
resources. The recent passage of Executive Order #13158 by President Clinton
makes federal agencies responsible for sustaining depleted marine resources.
The intention is to develop a national system of MPAs, strengthen existing
MPAs, create more as needed, and reduce ocean pollution. Over the coming
years, we can expect to see changes in the number, size, and regulation
of MPAs in the Gulf of Maine.
Designing and Implementing MPAs
Controversy usually swirls around the establishment of new MPAs. The scientific
research on their effects is scarce and far from comprehensive, and there
are intensely differing opinions among the various stakeholders. Even
the definition of an MPA depends on who you talk to. Still more controversial
is their effectiveness. Many scientists claim that they are effective,
and now a few studies show dramatic increases in fish stocks in and around
preserves. Meanwhile, others claim that they only reduce the economic
opportunities of fishermen.
Those experienced in the design and implementation of MPAs around the
world stress the need to involve all stakeholders in a systematic design
process. It has been found that specific management needs and goals should
to be set and agreed upon first. If MPAs can contribute to these goals,
then criteria for MPA selection should be defined. Given a set of criteria,
the contentious task of identifying and proposing MPA sites, boundaries
and usage limits can begin.
Designing and implementing MPAs in the Gulf of Maine will be a difficult
and complex task. Those attempting it will have to get both the science
and the politics right. On one hand, they will need to consider the natural
and ecological setting of the environment, requiring the best available
scientific information. On the other hand, they will need to take into
account the cultural, social, and economic values of the people of the
region. The process will need to be open enough that all voices are given
a chance to be heard and respected
The design of MPAs must also include resources to monitor and collect
new data. It must include mechanisms to modify the MPAs according to the
results of what is learned, through adaptive management and prudent planning.
Improvement of the MPAs in the Gulf of Maine will require careful planning
by all involved. Much science must still be done, and even more political
work. The regulatory system must be re-structured, with the participation
of stakeholders along the entire way. With the new interest in MPAs, at
all levels of government, these tasks are now easier, but still a great