Connecting the Dots: The National System of Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas symbol.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

Most of us are familiar with the U.S. National Parks System. The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are just a few well-known places in this network of protected natural, recreational, and cultural sites. But did you know there also are protected places in our nation’s oceans? These places are called marine protected areas (MPAs), and, like national parks, they provide lasting protection to important ecosystems as well as natural and cultural resources. 

Existing MPAs Working Together

MPAs are defined ocean and coastal areas where natural and cultural resources are given greater protection than the surrounding waters. In the United States, more than 1,700 MPAs span a range of marine habitats, including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes. All of these MPAs were created for different reasons and each has its own conservation objectives, which range from conserving important habitats and preserving sunken historic vessels to protecting fish spawning grounds important to commercial and recreational fisheries.

Humpback whale.

The National System of Marine Protected Areas will conserve habitat important to marine species.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

These MPAs were created by over 100 different local, state, tribal, or federal authorities. The level of protection provided by these MPAs ranges from no-take marine reserves to those allowing multiple uses, including fishing. Nearly all U.S. MPAs are multiple use and allow public access and fishing.

To help these diverse MPAs work more effectively to conserve the nation’s natural and cultural heritage, NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center is building a National System of Marine Protected Areas in partnership with the Department of the Interior, other federal agencies, states and territories, tribes, fishery management councils, environmental groups, and members of the general public.

For the first time, the national system will allow the agencies managing MPAs to work together to address common conservation objectives. The national system recognizes the important contributions made by these diverse programs and will help MPAs address urgent conservation priorities that extend beyond their boundaries and require a regional or national approach. 

Protecting Our Ocean Wanderers

Marine protected areas map.

United States marine protected areas

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

One example of a species that could benefit from the national system is the northern elephant seal – a migratory species whose paths span thousands of miles and cross international boundaries on land and sea. Two priority conservation objectives of the national system are to conserve both key reproduction and nursery grounds, and areas of high species and/or high diversity for natural resources.

Several MPAs along the California coast, including the Gulf of the Farallones and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries as well as several state parks, are places where northern elephant seals molt and breed. Because northern elephant seals spend the majority of their lives diving, swimming, and searching for food, they frequent offshore marine protected areas as well. By bringing together these diverse types of protected areas that all play a vital role in sustaining the northern elephant seal, the national system can help ensure that the scientific and management information essential to sound decisions is shared.

elephant seal.

The National System of Marine Protected Areas will help conserve migratory species, like elephant seals.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

The system also will ensure that representative examples of our country’s habitats and ecosystem are protected, as well as outstanding examples of our cultural heritage, such as historic shipwrecks. In addition, the system will undertake a collaborative effort at the regional scale to identify highly-valuable ecological areas that may need additional protection. By working to strengthen existing MPAs and identifying gaps in our current protection efforts, the national system of MPAs will allow us to “connect the dots” of our individual conservation efforts to create a vital national picture of a healthy ocean.

For more information about the National System of Marine Protected Areas, visit the MPA Web site. NOAA logo.