Marine Protected Areas

Soft Corals in Coral Sea

Reserves are not a cure-all for all the problems facing the ocean, and they need to be complemented by sound fisheries management outside the reserve. Photo: Mark Spencer

What are Marine Protected Areas?

The term “Marine Protected Area” (MPA) refers to an area of the marine or coastal environment that is afforded some degree of legal protection for natural and/or cultural resources.  MPAs have been used effectively both nationally and internationally to conserve biodiversity, manage natural resources, protect endangered species, reduce user conflicts, provide educational and research opportunities, and enhance commercial and recreational fisheries. An MPA network should provide a balance between no-take zones and areas of multiple use.

Governments started creating parks and wilderness reserves on land more than a century ago. It’s time to give our oceans the same attention. Less than 1 percent of the world’s ocean is protected, much of this protection in name only. Preserving special places in the ocean will provide a haven for ocean life as fish and other creatures reproduce and raise their young.


Lying some 1000 kilometres northeast of New Zealand, the Kermadec Islands Nature Reserve is the most remote conservation area managed by the Department of Conservation.

The Science is Clear – MPAs Work

Research shows that protected ocean areas not only harbor more fish, they harbor older and bigger fish that can produce up to 200 times as many offspring as younger ones. More importantly, these safe havens have a spillover effect as abundant marine life begins to repopulate depleted species that migrate out to places beyond the borders of the reserve. These reserves provide a healthier habitat and more diverse life than unprotected areas. These healthy, intact ecosystems will become even more important as the ocean is stressed by global warming and ocean acidification.

In a scientific survey of more than 100 marine reserves worldwide by the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), scientists found:

– 446% average increase in biomass of animals and plants
– 166% average increase in number of plants or animals
– 1,000% increase in biomass and populations density of heavily fished species
– 28% average increase in body size of animals
– 21% average increase in species density

How Marine Reserves Work

The creation of marine reserves provides one of the most important and effective ways to protect the ocean. Like national parks and wilderness areas, marine reserves are areas where nothing can be taken out and only recreational and research activities are permitted.


WWF is working with fishermen in Kiunga, Kenya, to promote more sustainable fishing techniques. The community is vital to the conservation of local marine resources.

Marine reserves prohibit destructive activities like dredging and oil exploration, and they safeguard marine wildlife by excluding fishing. The result is a more diverse underwater realm, relative to exploited areas, with more large fish and pristine habitat. Hundreds of scientific articles have shown the benefits of marine reserves and other protected areas around the world.

The designation of marine reserves should involve careful consideration of the ecology of an area, as well as input from local residents. Successful reserves need sound enforcement, community support, and scientific monitoring. Reserves are not a cure-all for all the problems facing the ocean, and they need to be complemented by sound fisheries management outside the reserve as well as controls on water quality. However, the simple step of placing part of the ocean off limits can reap tremendous benefits. Creating a reserve is one of the few actions that actually increases the biomass in the ocean rather than simply minimizes how much is removed. By safeguarding ocean wilderness now, we save for a healthier ocean in the future.

An Insurance Policy for the Future

Protecting the places fish need to feed and breed is like creating an endowment. We can live off the interest quite happily, but if we dip into the capital, as we often do, we are living on borrowed time. Marine protected areas help rebuild the capital needed to sustain current and future generations of fishermen and break the cycle of boom and bust fisheries. Marine protected areas are good for fish and for fishermen.

In Our Own Backyard

California is currently engaged in a historic effort to establish a system of marine protected areas to conserve ocean fish and wildlife and restore ocean habitats. In 1999, California adopted the Marine Life Protection Act, establishing the United States’ first state law requiring a comprehensive network of marine protected areas. These new marine protected areas are designed to foster healthy ocean habitats and natural diversity, and to help restore the lost abundance of California fisheries.

A regional approach is being used to design MPAs along California’s 1,100-mile coast. The state has been divided into five regions, and new marine protected areas have been adopted or are in the planning stage in each area:


More than one-half of the world's population lives within 60 miles of a coast.

Central Coast: Pigeon Point to Point Conception (Regulations effective Sept 2007)

North Central Coast: Point Arena to Pigeon Point (Regulations effective May 2010)

South Coast: Point Conception to the CA/Mexican border (Regulations effective January 2012)

North Coast: California/Oregon border to Point Arena (Regulatory process currently underway)

San Francisco Bay: Options report available.

California’s Fish and Game Commission will decide this year on important protections for southern California’s coastal gems such as south La Jolla Reef, Swami’s Reef, and Point Dume.

Case Study:  California’s Channel Islands

A network of marine protected areas was adopted in the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast in 2002 and scientific monitoring shows that the new Channel Island marine protected areas are successfully improving biodiversity and ocean health. This marine reserve is one of the largest protected area networks in the United States, second only in size to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument.

The Channel Islands are often called the "North American Galapagos" because they are home to over 150 endemic or unique species.

In February, 2008 results from five years of scientific research into the effects of the marine reserve network were presented in a scientific symposium. Scientists from numerous agencies and research institutions compared ecological conditions in the newly-formed marine reserves to unprotected areas of comparable habitat. The initial results were dramatic, especially given the short time these reserves had been in effect. The results show that in the Channel Islands reserves:

– More and bigger fish inside protected reserves increased 70 percent over comparable areas outside reserves;

– Species targeted by fishing increased even more dramatically. Lingcod populations inside reserves were more than three times greater by weight than outside; kelp bass populations were nearly twice as large – these figures reflected both larger fish and more of them;

– Lobsters were larger inside reserves, and traps placed inside reserves for research purposes consistently yielded more individuals per trap than those placed outside;

– Kelp forests increased overall, but inside MPAs kelp increases were dramatically greater with a 12 times increase inside versus four times outside.

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