February 19, 2014 by Charles M. Wahle, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, NOAA Marine Protected Areas Center, Monterey, CA; and Lauren Wenzel, Acting Director, NOAA Marine Protected Areas Center, Silver Spring, MD
What's All The Fuss About Marine Protected Areas?
Driven by expanding threats to the world's oceans, the past two decades have seen growing interest in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as a way to conserve ecologically, economically and culturally important places, the habitats they contain, and the ecosystem services they provide. Designed and adaptively managed with sound science and meaningful stakeholder input, MPAs can be important, effective and equitable management tools for sustainably managing human impacts to these special areas. Many people across the ocean conservation spectrum agree that special ocean places should be protected from the impacts of human activities, just as we have done for generations for our most treasured forests, grasslands, mountains and deserts.
But, not everyone is enamored with MPAs. Reaching consensus among ocean stakeholders on "why", "how" and especially "where" human uses of the ocean should be curtailed by an MPA - and at what cost – can be a prolonged and daunting process. To many, MPAs embody the best of shared societal aspirations and commitments to a sustainable ocean for this and future generations. To others, this tool evokes fears of lost economic opportunities, arbitrary decision-making by governments unfamiliar with local realities, and "a management solution in search of a problem." Reality, especially in today's rapidly changing environment, probably lies somewhere in between and depends very much on local context and objectives. Finding ways to reconcile divergent perspectives on the utility of MPAs continues to be one of the ocean community's most important goals – and challenges.
Seeking A Rational Approach To MPAs: The National MPA Center
After a decade that highlighted both the promise and the challenges inherent with MPAs, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13158 in 2000, directing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to develop and support a comprehensive national system of MPAs is US waters. Now comprising 437 member sites, the voluntary national system connects and strengthens MPA programs that protect habitats and resources in many of America's ocean and coastal ecosystems. In many places, these MPAs provide a key foundation for thriving local and regional cultures and economies.
Established in 2001, and now located within NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the National Marine Protected Center is a unique partnership between NOAA and DOI that serves as a resource to all federal, state, territorial and tribal programs responsible for the health of the nation's oceans. Our mission, honed over a decade of experience, is simple: to serve as the nation's hub for building innovative partnerships and tools to protect special ocean places. To this end, the Center works in partnership with the federal, state, tribal, and local governments, tribes, and stakeholders to develop and implement a national system of MPAs serving many objectives. Our efforts are informed and enriched by the Federal Advisory Committee on MPAs: a 20 member body reflecting diverse sectors and perspectives within the ocean community. Their advice, and the contributions of the MPA management agencies that participate in the national system, lay the foundation for a robust and lasting approach to place-based conservation in America's oceans.
What's New in the MPA Center Blog?
The National MPA Center was created to strengthen and expand the nation's system of marine protected areas. After over a decade of trial and error, we remain committed to that goal. Further, we believe that success in today's world requires not only a solid foundation of science and stakeholder input, but also a renewed national and international conversation about when, where and how best to use MPAs to achieve conservation objectives in a rapidly changing environment.
In these monthly blogs, we will explore the implications of new information, tools and trends for MPA design and management in light of the emerging opportunities and constraints that shape our times. Among these are: new interactive tools to engage stakeholders; increased governmental accountability and transparency; innovative and sometimes controversial public-private partnerships; climate change and ocean acidification; increasingly limited budgets and political stability; expectations for expanded and ongoing stakeholder engagement; the vast conservation potential of social media; and profound demographic changes in coastal communities. All are part of the new fabric of place-based conservation in the US and around the world's ocean.
These are complex and important issues. Our aim here is not merely to report and summarize current events. Rather, we seek to critically explore important ideas and stimulate inquiry among others that leads to meaningful MPA conservation outcomes. To this end, we will tackle a range of timely issues with monthly blogs written by MPA Center staff, national system partners, and invited guest authors. To the extent practicable, we hope to engage in a dialog with readers in the OpenChannels blog space, although our primary aim is simply to get people thinking and talking throughout the MPA universe.
Our first topical blog will address the growing opportunities and challenges of increasing recreational use in MPAs. We welcome your thoughts on other topics of interest to the ocean community. Contact: Dr. Charlie Wahle, Editor of the MPA Center Blog, at firstname.lastname@example.org.