A recent study led by Oregon State University (OSU) has found that over 98 percent of U.S. waters outside the central Pacific Ocean are not part of a marine protected area (MPA), and even those that are tend to be only “lightly” or “minimally” protected from harmful human activities.
According to the experts, urgent actions are needed to improve the level of protection offered by existing marine protected areas, and to expand the number of such areas in the Antarctic, Arctic, and northeast Pacific Oceans, as well as in the Caribbean Sea.
“These findings highlight an urgent need to improve the quality, quantity and representativeness of MPA protection across U.S. waters to bring benefits to human and marine communities,” said study lead author Jenna Sullivan-Stack, a postdoctoral fellow in Integrative Biology at OSU.
“The benefits from marine protected areas are key for our future,” added study senior author Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, a marine ecologist at OSU, who led the MPA Guide project in 2021, which proposed a set of comprehensive criteria to assess the distribution and effectiveness of MPAs.
“The MPA coverage in regions outside the central Pacific is surprisingly sparse, and the gaps in protection represent a challenge to meeting the goals laid out in the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative,” which promises to conserve at least 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.
By using the MPA Guide to assess the 50 largest U.S. marine protected areas, the scientists found that most of them are located in the central Pacific Ocean, and that only 25.2 percent are “fully” or at least “highly” protected.
These findings highlight the need to establish new, networked MPAs with better representation of marine biodiversity, and to improve equity and other social and ecological conditions needed for the new and already existing areas to be effective. Moreover, in order for the MPAs to last and function as efficiently as possible, governance structures and long-term funding support for staffing, monitoring, and other activities should be established or strengthened.
“It is important to recognize that well-managed MPAs, designed with the local context in mind, can deliver benefits that extend beyond marine life to coastal communities that depend on sustainable marine resources for their livelihoods and cultural survival,” concluded study co-author Ana Spalding, an associate professor of Marine and Coastal Policy at OSU.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.