What is a Marine Protected Area? Why do those 3 letters, “MPA,” generate such fear?

A Marine Protected Area or MPA is a clearly defined geographic area that has special protections in place and is formally dedicated for those protections.  That’s it.

On land we have many such designated areas, so before we go to sea, let’s look at some of our MPAs’ terrestrial counterparts. 

Private property - usually for a fee, a person takes title to a clearly defined area.  The owner then basically sets criteria for use of that land.  We have farmland that farmers set aside for crops.  Their water might be designated for irrigation.  Folks who own their house can likewise set their own rules of entry.  Owners set the terms and we often see “Parking for patrons” or “management reserves the right to . . . “

In addition to private ownership, federal and state governments also have a role. Federal designations include Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and others.   Rules on these properties are set geographically, then generally limit but allow activities that may include mining, timber harvest, hunting and fishing.  Teddy Roosevelt provided the guidance and framework for much of this national policy.  Consequently, today across our country the average person enjoys unparalleled hunting and fishing opportunity and access to the great outdoors.

Most states and municipalities have followed this lead and have similar designations and also apply similar regulations and restrictions.

When it comes to the ocean, rules have come later rather than sooner.  Oil drilling, wind farms, transportation and fishing are regulated, but the regulations have been more specific to the activity instead of the geographic area.  Marine spatial planning is evolving and will be helpful by assuring both competing and complimentary interests some degree of certainty for their future endeavors.  Although it does not regulate, the new National Ocean Policy was formulated with broad stakeholder input to provide a regional framework for such practices, while embracing all interests.

In light of this background let’s again look at the infamous “MPA.”  

First of all, MPA is NOT simply code for no fishing.  Case in point, our National Marine Sanctuaries:  these “Sanctuaries” are “MPAs,” initially designed as places free from oil development or mineral extraction.  Much like their counterparts on land, the aim was to protect high value marine habitat from over exploitation.  Over the years, through open public and scientifically vetted process, some areas within these Sanctuaries have been set aside for greater protection either for research or to provide a baseline habitat, free from human caused interference.  Some of these are “no-take” marine reserves where fishing and generally all extractive activities are prohibited, however, over 95% of the entire area that our National Marine Sanctuaries occupy is open to recreational fishing.

Much like Teddy Roosevelt’s protection of western lands, George Bush created a large open-ocean no-take marine reserve when he dedicated the Northern Hawaiian Islands National Monument.  The remote location of this MPA lent itself to such a designation

On the state management level, a number of states have dedicated areas where extractive activities are prohibited.   This may include prohibitions against oil and gas exploration, vessel transit or fishing.

One state process comes to mind in particular: California’s Marine Life Protection Act.  The Act, or “MLPA” as it is known, is actually a law passed in the 1990’s designed to protect a network of high value marine habitats.  Assuring that stakeholders would play a major role in deciding which areas to protect and at what level of protection to employ cost California and it’s partners tens of millions of dollars and took more than a decade to complete.  Fishing is allowed in 2 out of the 3 types of MPA that this legislation authorizes.   A third type of MPA is  designated “State Marine Reserves” where fishing is prohibited.  However, in total, these reserves make up less than 10% of coastal California waters.  While they still cause heartburn to some locals, overall, recreational fishing has continued with little or no interruption in California.

At the height of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”   Today those words still ring true regarding Marine Protected Areas - the more that we actually learn about MPAs, the less scary they get. 
Much like his older cousin, FDR was right on the mark.  


Department of Fish & wildlife