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U.S. Must Expand Marine Protection to Meet Ocean Conservation Goals

Three SBU fauclty appointed to task force to study NY ocean acidification
Ellen Pikitch holds gooseneck barnacles in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, an MPA in Washington State. Credit: Photo provided by Ellen Pikitch

A new analysis of marine protected areas (MPAs) reveals that many important ocean regions off mainland United States are significantly unprotected — with large portions of the coast having only 5 percent or less of its area conserved and a vast majority of the Mid-Atlantic coast unprotected. The findings by a team of national scientists, including Ellen Pikitch, from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), are published in Frontiers in Marine Science.

MPAs are a key tool for achieving goals for biodiversity, conservation and human well-being, including improving climate resilience and equitable access to nature. Without MPAs, critical marine systems and the coastal economies that depend on them  are left vulnerable to unprecedented ecological pressures.

In the paper, “A Scientific Synthesis of Marine Protected Areas in the United States: Status and Recommendations,” the research team used the groundbreaking science-based framework, the MPA Guide, to evaluate the country’s 50 largest MPAs, which make up 99.7 percent of all U.S. MPA coverage. They found that more than 96 percent of the total MPA area — and 99 percent of the U.S. MPA area that is fully or highly protected from extractive and destructive human activities — is located in the Central Pacific Ocean. MPA coverage in other regions, they write, is surprisingly sparse. Just 1.9 percent of the U.S. waters outside the Central Pacific benefit from any MPA protections, and most of those are considered only lightly or minimally protected.

This map of the current status of MPAs in the U.S. shows the uneven distribution of MPAs with low percentages in many ocean regions, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic. Credit: Sullivan-Stack et al. Frontiers. 2022

Previously, an international collaboration of scientists, including Pikitch, published the MPA Guide, which is a framework for effective ocean protection.

This new research is the first systematic application of the MPA Guide to an entire nation’s waters.

The authors urge that if the U.S. does not ramp up its ocean conservation efforts, the country will have a difficult time meeting conservation goals laid out in the Biden Administration’s “American the Beautiful” initiative, and the “30 by 30” MPA goal.

“A lot of work needs to be done, and quickly, to significantly expand marine protection in vast areas of the U.S. waters that have been largely neglected,” said Pikitch, co-author, endowed professor of Ocean Conservation Science, and executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at SoMAS. “Of particular concern is that only  0.3 percent of the Mid-Atlantic region is conserved, and the strength of that protection is very weak.”

Pikitch explains that while it appears the U.S. is coming close to the goal of protecting 30 percent of its oceans, currently at 26 percent, the figure is misleading as the vast majority of that protection is in one ecosystem — the Central Pacific Ocean — and the current approach to ocean conservation is not representative of the entire U.S. ocean that surrounds much of the nation.

Accomplishing the 30 percent MPA goal will require a lot of effort, urges Pikitch. In order for all ocean regions of the U.S. to reach 30 percent MPA coverage, it will be necessary to protect more than 700,000 square miles of non-central Pacific waters, Pikitch calculated. This is an area larger than the size of the state of Alaska, and about 13.5 times the size of New York State.

Regarding the areas where MPA representation is well under 5 percent or even close to zero, Pikitch said: “Equitable representation is a guiding principle in all we do, such as in government, and this should also apply to ocean conservation. Most of the waters off our shores, with their varied environments and diverse ocean wildlife, have been left unprotected. This not only affects sea creatures and the ocean itself, but deprives huge portions of human populations, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region, from the economic, ecological, climate, social and cultural benefits that MPAs can provide. Given strong political will, we can quickly begin to improve the representativeness within all those regions nationwide that lag in MPA coverage.”

Overall, in terms of study findings and what can be done to ramp up ocean conservation, the authors write: “We recommend key opportunities for action specific to the U.S. context, including increasing funding, research, equity, and protection level for new and existing U.S. MPAs.”

Ocean Conservation Recommendations by the National Research Team

Based on the analysis and findings, the authors highlight specific recommendations for U.S. decision-makers.

Some of the recommendations include:

  1. Establish more, and more effective, MPAs. The U.S. needs to create more fully and highly protected MPAs to reach national conservation goals. Current MPAs with weak protection need re-evaluating, and all MPAs need to be actively managed to optimize results.
  2. Establish new networked MPAs with better representation of U.S. marine biodiversity, regions and habitats. The vast Central Pacific MPAs are valuable and should be celebrated and strengthened with plans for management. But the U.S. needs to create effective networks in other areas too, to reflect the diversity of its marine ecosystems. As well as biodiversity protection, this will bring the social benefits of MPAs within reach of many more communities.
  3. Improve attention and commitment to equity in new and existing MPAs. Close engagement with diverse rights-holders and stakeholders in inclusive planning and management processes — particularly with Indigenous and other historically excluded communities — increases MPA equity, utility and effectiveness.
  4. Track MPAs’ ability to deliver desired outcomes, not just the area they cover. Frameworks like the MPA Guide help identify the activities allowed and clarify the level of protection offered to help observers understand whether positive outcomes related to biodiversity and climate resilience can be expected. Outcomes from sites that provide effective and lasting conservation benefits but are not MPAs, like military closed areas for example, should also be tracked as the U.S. works to achieve its 30×30 target.
  5. Ensure MPAs are durable so they will continue to work in the future. Governance structures and long-term capacity — including funding support for staffing, monitoring, etc. — should be established and strengthened. More research is needed on how to make sure MPAs are both “climate-ready” and also can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
  6. Build on existing state MPA initiatives and encourage and coordinate MPA actions at state level. State support will be needed to achieve the federal goals of America the Beautiful. Initiatives could include executive and legislative actions, outreach and education, and stakeholder coordination. Some states have already passed resolutions relating to 30×30.


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