MIT Sea Grant Center for Coastal Resources

Marine Protected Areas in the Gulf of Maine

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 protection.

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 challenge.



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  this page last updated on: 7 December, 2009