American Oceans

Marine Protected Areas: What Are They?

A Marine Protected Area is a body of water with restricted human activity, intended to protect a natural or cultural resource.

Untouched coral reef and secluded island

These are established by the local government, and the maintenance of them varies depending on the area itself. Marine Protected Areas, otherwise known as MPAs, are an important part of conservation.

There are many types of MPAs established around the world. A Marine Protected Area can be part of a sea, an ocean, and estuary, or even a lake. What’s important is what’s contained with these waters.

Many MPAs protect marine ecosystems from issues such as overfishing or petroleum drilling. There are also MPAs that protect important underwater archeological sites, such as shipwrecks.

Some MPAs act as wildlife refuges, and some are protected for research purposes.

The idea for MPAs was first established in 1962 by the World Congress on National Parks. By 1976, sovereign states were given the ability to establish Marine Protected Areas over 200 nautical miles.

In the years since then, large MPAs have been established all across the globe.

Betty's Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. December 2019. A stop poaching sign in the Kogelsberg Nature Reserve a marine protected area at Betty's Bay, Western Cape.

MPAs are a vital part in ensuring the health and safety of our planet, and the wonderful ecosystems contained within.

Can you swim in Marine Protected Areas?

It is possible to swim in some Marine Protected Areas, but others ban all human access entirely. The level of strictness depends on the area itself. If you’re interested in swimming in an MPA, be sure to check the rules before you go.

Some MPAs, such as parts of the Seaflower Reserve off the coast of Columbia, allow no human access at all. This is the strictest level of protection available. However, this is only a part. In other places in the Seaflower Reserve, humans are allowed. 

There are MPAs where swimming and snorkeling is permitted. These are generally known as No-Take MPAs, because fishing is banned. In these areas, tourists and locals are free to explore the water, as long as they don’t do any damage.

MPAs may also have reduced access, only allowing a limited number of swimmers in the water at any one time. This ensures that everyone is behaving correctly.

Sign at the Bird Sanctuary Stony Point at Betty´s Bay Marine Protected Area, Western Cape, South Africa, November 24 2017.

MPAs are often seen as incredible places to swim, because of the unique environments they contain. However, this is why it’s so important that humans consider their impact. Swimming in an MPA should only be done with care.

How are Marine Protected Areas enforced?

Anyone who has ever seen the ocean can agree that it’s a difficult thing to monitor. That makes the job of enforcing marine protection particularly tricky. Low-tech and high-tech methods are used, alongside the local community.

Marine Protected area of Plemmirio in Syracuse - Sicily, Italy

Marine Protected Areas are often vast spaces. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is roughly 344,000 square kilometers, or about the size of Japan. Monitoring this is a monumental task.

Often, the enforcement of an MPA is directly related to budget. MPAs with a large budget to work with will often employ a number of high-tech strategies. Video surveillance, from both on the sea and in the air, is vital.

The use of drone surveillance is quickly growing in popularity. Satellite cameras can also be used to track fishing vessels, to see where breaches may be occurring.

Overberg, South Africa Information sign of De Hoop Nature Reserve Marine Protected Area

For MPAs with a smaller budget, the community plays a necessary role in enforcing the rules. Volunteers are asked to observe the area, and report breaches. 

In some areas, the MPAs are funded to reduce the necessity of fishing. Funding the MPA, to offset the money lost by removing fishing, can convince governments to support enforcement.

Technology for enforcing the protection of MPAs is consistently improving.

What are the types of Marine Protected Areas?

A Marine Protected Area is a clearly defined space which is protected from human intervention in order to conserve the ecosystem found within.

Remote limestone islands in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, are surrounded by healthy coral reefs. This biodiverse region is known as the "heart of the Coral Triangle" due to its amazing marine life.

Because of this, there are many bodies of water covered by the title of MPAs. The types of MPA relate to how strict the level of access is.

The most relaxed type of MPA is the Multiple Use. These allow for swimming, and some restricted forms of fishing.

No-Take MPAs allow for human access, but with more restrictions in place. Fishing isn’t allowed, neither is petroleum drilling, nor any other action that may damage the area. There are also No Impact areas, which enforce a stricter version of No-Take. 

California Elephant seals colony, Piedras Blancas point in Big Sur, California

No Access is the absolute strictest category. The only access is for scientific research, and everything is carefully monitored for impact. No Access areas are often a small part of a larger reserve.

The IUCN categorizes MPAs in 7 different ways: strict nature reserve, wilderness area, national park, natural monuments or features, habitat/species management area, protected seascape, and sustainable use of a natural resource.

This refers to what is in the area, and the access allowed.

Can you fish in a marine sanctuary?

Fishing in a marine sanctuary is allowed, but there are limits placed on the activity. While recreational fishing is generally accepted, large scale commercial fishing isn’t.

View towards Fitzgerald Marine Reserve at low tide from the path on the bluffs, Moss Beach, California

Because marine sanctuaries work to protect the natural features of an area, many assume that all forms of fishing will be completely banned. However, marine sanctuaries are designed to encourage people to enjoy an area sustainably.

Recreational fishing rarely removes enough fish to have a real impact on the environment, and is therefore allowed. 

While marine sanctuaries may allow for recreational fishing, there can be some restrictions. That will mean a limit to the number of fish that can be removed, and certain species may be completely protected.

Map of the Goukamma Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area at Buffalo Bay near Knysna, South Africa

Fishing in an MPA is slightly different. Some MPAs completely restrict fishing, and others will have very strict controls.

An MPA may also restrict fishing in only a certain area. Doing this allows the fish population to recover, while still providing the local people with an income. 

Some MPAs don’t allow for recreational fishing, but they do allow indigenous people to fish for sustenance. This may also be monitored, and there may be limitations regarding how many fish can be taken.

Where is the world’s biggest marine reserve?

The Ross Sea Marine Protected Area is the largest marine reserve in the world. Located in the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica, it covers 598,000 square miles. It received international protection in October 2016.

Protection of the Ross Sea, otherwise known as the “Last Ocean” due to its relatively untouched nature, was voted on unanimously by 26 countries. It contains over 16,000 species, supporting fish, whales, seals, and penguins.

Another large MPA is Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. This is located off the coast of Hawaii, and is a massive 582,578 square miles.

It protects species such as the endangered hawksbill sea turtle, the Hawaiian monk seal, and the Laysan duck. Papahanaumokuakea was a smaller reserve, expanded significantly in 2015.

A diversity of reef-building corals, mainly Acropora spp., grow in shallow water not too far from the island of Misool in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. This area has high marine biodiversity.

Other large MPAs include Cabo Pulmo National Park, Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, and the Palau National Marine Sanctuary. Large marine reserves can be found all over the world, protecting a vast range of ecosystems. 

New MPAs are being created all the time, as the need for wildlife protection becomes recognized by governments across the world. MPAs are also regularly expanded, covering new areas with their protections. 

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