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Issues of the Water Planet 
Coral Reefs - Whales - Fisheries

nudibranch_ca.jpg (12105 bytes) MARINE PROTECTED AREAS
The Cousteau Society and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute developed reasons why a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) is urgently needed to protect the biological diversity and integrity of US waters. Detailed recommendations were submitted and an Executive Order has intiated action to develop a system of MPAs

Why the United States Needs a National System of MPAs
Submerged lands under United States jurisdiction occupy more than 4.4 million square miles, an area much larger than all other federal lands combined; indeed larger than the entire US land area. Moreover, the United States–from Guam and Alaska to California, from Maine and Texas to Puerto Rico–has the highest marine ecosystem diversity of any nation in the world. Yet, the USA has no comprehensive system to protect this unequaled national treasure.

The Sea is Important
The portion of the Earth that supports life–the biosphere–provides goods and services essential for the survival, security and prosperity of the United States. Every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we drink, every breath of air that we breathe is produced by living things, and it would require more than the Gross Domestic Product of all the world’s nations combined to duplicate these services. The living sea–covering 71% of the Earth and constituting more than 99% of the habitat for animals and plants–is the largest part of the biosphere. Marine ecosystems are home to many kinds of living things that occur nowhere else. They protect shorelines from erosion, break down wastes, moderate climate and maintain a breathable atmosphere. Marine species provide a livelihood for millions of people, food, medicines, raw materials and recreation for billions worldwide, and are intrinsically important.

The Sea is Imperiled
Life in the world's estuaries, coastal waters, enclosed seas and oceans is increasingly threatened by: 1) overexploitation of species, 2) physical alteration of ecosystems, 3) pollution, 4) introduction of alien species, and 5) global atmospheric change. In recent years we and other scientists have witnessed a rapid increase in severe environmental problems off our coasts, including the collapse of once-bountiful New England cod fisheries, the descent toward extinction of California white abalone, the appearance of a huge "dead zone" off Louisiana, the steady decline of Florida Keys coral reefs, and many more. There is no doubt that the sea's biological diversity and ecological integrity are in trouble.

Existing Programs Are Inadequate
There are federal and state programs with mandates to protect particular aspects of the marine environment, and we recognize that the existing regulatory structure has promise. However, each program was created independently, and in combination they do not provide a comprehensive, integrated approach to marine ecosystem protection. We have observed continued degradation of marine environmental health in recent decades despite the existence of these programs. The United States needs new vision for managing our seas. We find that marine protected areas–particularly no-take marine reserves–are essential for protecting and restoring ecological integrity, and ensuring that use of marine life is ecologically sustainable.

MPAs Provide Crucial Benefits
Well-designed and managed marine protected areas provide a variety of benefits, including some that complement other marine management tools and some that are unique to MPAs. They:

  1. maintain and encourage the recovery of functioning natural ecosystems and ecosystem processes
  2. protect and restore biodiversity (including genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity and abundance)
  3. protect endangered/rare species
  4. protect unique ecosystems
  5. protect marine wilderness
  6. protect important habitat, including spawning and nursery areas
  7. reduce overexploitation and provide refuge from fishing pressure
  8. enhance fisheries in surrounding areas
  9. provide an "insurance policy" against uncertainty and errors in fishery management
  10. provide sites for observational and manipulative research, including areas that can serve as benchmarks and as a source of baseline data in our changing world
  11. provide educational opportunities
  12. protect or improve recreational opportunities
  13. protect or improve opportunities for tourism
  14. protect cultural and historical resources
  15. provide economic benefits to local communities and the nation
  16. provide opportunities to learn from innovative approaches in marine management
  17. foster appreciation, understanding, and passion for the marine environment
  18. protect traditional lifestyles
  19. provide a mechanism to manage the marine environment using the precautionary approach

A National Goal for the 21st Century

In view of the above benefits to the nation now and for future generations, we urge the United States to establish a comprehensive system of marine protected areas that, in conjunction with other management approaches, safeguards the nation's marine environment. This system must maintain biological diversity and ecosystem functioning, preserve historical and cultural sites, and be resilient to changing environmental and societal forces. The system should also provide support for fisheries management. Management of the system should be precautionary in the face of uncertainty. The system must include ecological networks that both preserve the connections of ecosystem functioning over local and regional scales and protect viable representatives of all marine ecosystem types in all US marine biogeographic regions. Individual MPAs in the network can have different goals, but should contribute to an interactive and comprehensive network.

To achieve these objectives, diverse lines of evidence indicate the need to eliminate extractive and harmful human activities on the order of a minimum level of 20% of each ecosystem type. Some ecosystems will require higher levels of protection because they are rare, highly threatened, vulnerable, or are critical habitats for key life stages of marine species. This 20% figure is contingent on the quality of management outside marine protected areas. Greater levels of protection will be required where management outside protected area boundaries is poor.

If you want to help support marine protected areas, join The Cousteau Society!