The ocean is essential to life on earth. It provides the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. However, the ocean is in trouble.
According to several definitive reports (including the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative – Changing Oceans, Changing World (PDF); and the PEW Oceans Commission entitled America’s Living Oceans (PDF), to name two) the health of the world’s oceans is in jeopardy from overfishing, pollution, climate change, and destruction of native habitat.
Nationally, NOAA’s State of the Coast rates the overall coastal health to be in ‘fair’, though stressed condition. If the Ocean’s health declines any further, it will reach a point where it can no longer function effectively and our planet will be unable to sustain the ecosystems that support humankind.
Actions are being taken at both the national and regional level to reform ocean policy and management. Most recently, President Obama created the National Ocean Council, which identifies priority objectives to address the ocean’s most pressing issues. Bold 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. Closer to home, organizations such as the California Ocean Protection Council and California Ocean Science Trust are working to ensure California maintains a healthy, resilient, and productive ocean and coastal ecosystem for the benefit of current and future generations.
One facet of these new strides towards a healthier ocean is the creation of networks of marine protected areas. Here in California and around the world, these special ocean areas are working to preserve our vulnerable ocean ecosystems and threatened marine life.
California’s coastal waters are some of the richest in the world. But they are showing significant signs of overuse and declining health. Threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and over exploitation, our coastal ecosystems require proactive action. Current research is finding that marine life is more abundant and larger inside marine protected areas. By establishing a network of MPAs, the hope is that declining populations of fish and habitats will recover, and the ocean’s bounty will be safeguarded for the economic and recreational activities of future generations.
Like parks protect wildlife and habitats on land, MPAs protect and restore wildlife and habitats in our ocean. The size and level of protection vary depending on the purpose of the MPA, some restrict fishing, while others allow compatible uses such as fishing and recreation to occur. By protecting entire ecosystems rather than focusing on a single species, MPAs are powerful tools for conserving and restoring ocean biodiversity, may provide benefits to cultural resources, and can help sustain local economies. In addition, MPAs contribute to healthier, more resilient ocean ecosystems that can better withstand a wide range of human impacts such as pollution and climate change.
There are many different types of MPAs, ranging from highly restrictive to those that are designed as multiple-use, allowing fishing, recreation, extraction, and other human activities to occur within their boundaries. The most restrictive MPA are marine reserves, known as fully protected or no-take MPAs, which prohibit all fishing, mineral extraction, and other habitat-altering activities. Marine reserves allow fish, mammals, and other marine life to breed, feed, and thrive free of human interference.
Marine protected areas are established at all levels of government, including federal, state, territorial, and local agencies. In the State of California, MPAs are primarily managed by either federal or state agencies. At the federal level there are MPAs such as national marine sanctuaries, national estuaries, and national parks. At the state level is the newly designated network of MPAs established under the Marine Life Protection Act.