Marine protected areas in the United States are not the consequence of a systematic effort to design and implement a functional network of MPAs. Rather existing MPAs were designated by a constellation of different management authorities and jurisdictions from the local to the federal level. At the federal level, there are a broad range of laws for coastal zone management, clean water, fisheries, and offshore oil and gas. In addition to these broad regulatory efforts, the federal government has set aside more than 300 individual MPAs for fishery management, conservation, and cultural heritage purposes. National parks, estuarine research reserves, marine sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, and fishery reserves are examples of federal MPAs.
In the United States, most MPAs are managed by either: 1) Department of Commerce by various offices within NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), or 2) Department of Interior. Within NOAA, MPAs may be a part of the National Marine Sanctuary program, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Each program is dedicated to preserving particular goals. For instance, National Marine Sanctuaries typically protect special areas for their conservation and recreation value such as Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary; Estuarine Research Reserves form a network of research and education MPAs and include Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Research Reserve and Morro Bay National Estuary Program; and the National Marine Fisheries Service sets aside areas to help maintain healthy fish stocks, protect nursery habitat and conserve endangered species such as marine mammals and salmon. Within the Department of Interior, MPAs may be managed as National Parks to protect recreational opportunities and ensure that these areas are conserved for the enjoyment of current and future generations or as National Wildlife Refuges, to protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and their habitats for the American people.
Frequently, the overlapping jurisdictions of various federal and state agencies have presented obstacles to the implementation and management of MPAs, indicating the need for greater coordination among these agencies. There is no federal agency or authority charged with the oversight of marine protected areas. However, Executive Order 13158 of May 26, 2000, may provide a framework for greater coordination among federal agencies.
More recently, President Obama created the National Ocean Council, which identifies priority objectives to address the ocean’s most pressing issues. In addition, bold new initiatives such as the Pacific 2020 Challenge, and the West Coast Governors’ Alliance are recognizing the importance of a collaborative effort to improve our oceans health.