CORVALLIS, Ore. – A federal initiative, “The National System of Marine Protected Areas” for the United States, was launched last week, completing a multi-year project to coordinate protection of natural and cultural marine ecosystems throughout America’s oceans.
The accomplishment, announced jointly by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce, represents a profound shift toward protection of entire marine communities instead of focusing on single species, officials said.
“Marine protected areas are parts of the ocean set aside for their conservation value, much like state and national parks,” said Mark Hixon, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and chair of the federal advisory committee that helped produce the framework for the national system. “These are tools for the future, providing lasting protection of our living and nonliving ocean heritage for coming generations of Americans.”
“Besides benefiting fisheries, these areas will protect the rich biodiversity of the seas, the vast treasure trove of genes, organisms, species and ecosystems of the underwater world,” Hixon said. “I believe that our children and grandchildren will look back on this day with pride.”
This is the first formal mechanism for coordinating marine protected areas throughout the nation, officials said. The framework includes an outline of the national systems, goals and conservation priorities, eligibility criteria, a voluntary nomination process for new areas to be included in the national system, and a way to identify where new marine protected areas are most needed.
In five years of work, Hixon led a 30-member federal advisory committee that included natural and social scientists, state and tribal resource managers, commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists, ocean industry representatives and others. The initiative was begun based on an executive order of President Clinton and continued in the Bush administration.
“Not everyone welcomes change or values the future as much as the present,” Hixon said. “Marine protected areas are controversial by their very nature. But despite our different world views and values, this committee listened to each other, learned from each other, found common ground and reached meaningful consensus.”
Oregon is now making plans for its first marine reserves, Hixon said, and other parts of the nation are moving ahead with the concept even more rapidly.
The framework for the national system of marine protected areas recognizes that they are fundamental tools for ecosystem-based management, and that some of the highest priorities for protection include critical habitat of threatened and endangered species, reproduction and nursery areas of marine species, and cultural and historic sites in the ocean listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Widespread public participation will be essential to maximize success in this process, officials said. Mechanisms will be needed to ensure compliance, public education may be needed and workable incentives created to increase cooperation. Those might include initiatives such as tax breaks or new job training for those who are affected by marine protected areas.
“Right now, in the U.S. we have a very loose collection of sites, many with practically no protection or regulations, and very little coordination to accomplish the broader goals of ecosystem-based management,” Hixon said. “With this new approach, we should be better able to integrate them into a more effective network.”
Some parts of the nation are making rapid progress in this area. California is already establishing a statewide network of marine reserves, Washington has reserves in Puget Sound plus the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and Alaska and Hawaii, along with the East Coast and Gulf Coast, have a variety of marine protected areas.