National System of Marine Protected Areas

An osprey looking at the camera
An osprey at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Credit: USFWS

Executive Order 13158 called for the United States to develop and support a national system of marine protected areas (MPAs) to connect and strengthen the nation's MPAs and MPA programs. From 2003-2012, the MPA Center focused on: gathering foundational information about U.S. MPA programs shown in the MPA Inventory; coordinating among MPA programs; developing science, information, and tools to inform programs; creating a framework for understanding and managing MPAs in US waters; and, establishing the National System of MPAs.

The national system is described in detail in the Framework for a National System of Marine Protected Areas for the United States.

The goals of the national system as described in the Framework are to conserve and manage:

  • Natural heritage – the nation's biological communities, habitats, ecosystems, and processes and the ecological services, values and uses they provide
  • Cultural heritage - cultural resources that reflect the nation's maritime history and traditional cultural connections to the sea, as well as the uses and values they provide
  • Sustainable production - the nation's renewable living resources and their habitats (including, but not limited to, spawning, mating, and nursery grounds and areas established to minimize bycatch of species) and the social, cultural and economic values and services they provide

As the needs of MPAs in the U.S. and around the world have evolved, the focus of the MPA Center has broadened beyond the National System as originally envisioned. In order to work more effectively across all U.S. MPA programs, as well as to align U.S. definitions and reporting with the global community, since 2013, the MPA Center has focused on:

  • Strengthening the capacity of both U.S. and international MPA programs to address management challenges, including through the development of partnerships, professional networks, and advancing learning opportunities. Appearing on the national system list is not a requirement for collaboration.
  • Aligning the U.S. definition of MPAs with the global community. As defined by the IUCN, MPAs focus on “the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” They do not include areas managed for sustainable production. The MPA Center serves as the leading source of information on U.S. MPAs, and is the official source of reporting toward global MPA targets, which use the IUCN definition. The U.S. MPA Inventory is being updated to align with global reporting requirements.

Given this focus, the broader national system list is no longer being updated, and nominations are no longer being accepted. The MPA Inventory will continue to manage information on U.S. MPAs and will be routinely updated to include new, expanded and modified MPAs.