A new analysis of marine protected areas (MPAs) reveals that many important ocean regions off the mainland United States are significantly unprotected – with large portions of the coast having only 5 percent or less of its area conserved and a vast majority of the Mid-Atlantic coast unprotected.
The findings by a team of scientists were published this week in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
The research team evaluated the country’s 50 largest MPAs, which make up 99.7 percent of all US MPA coverage. They found that over 96 percent of the total MPA area, and 99 percent of the U.S. MPA area that is fully or highly protected from extractive and destructive human activities – is located in the central Pacific Ocean.
MPA coverage in other regions, they write, is surprisingly sparse. Just 1.9 percent of the U.S. waters outside the central Pacific benefit from any MPA protections and most of those are considered only lightly or minimally protected.
If the U.S. doesn’t ramp up its ocean conservation efforts, the country will have a difficult time meeting conservation goals laid out in the Biden Administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative, and the “30 by 30” MPA goal, the authors warn.
Ellen Pikitch, co-author and a professor at Stony Brook University, said:
“A lot of work needs to be done, and quickly, to significantly expand marine protection in vast areas of the U.S. waters that have been largely neglected. Of particular concern is that only 0.3 percent of the Mid-Atlantic region is conserved, and the strength of that protection is very weak.”
Pikitch explains that while it appears the U.S. is coming close to the goal of protecting 30 percent of its oceans, currently at 26 percent, the figure is misleading as the vast majority of that protection is in one ecosystem — the Central Pacific Ocean — and the current approach to ocean conservation isn’t representative of the entire U.S. ocean that surrounds much of the nation.
Accomplishing the 30 percent MPA goal will require a lot of effort, urges Pikitch. In order for all ocean regions of the U.S. to reach 30 percent MPA coverage it would be necessary to protect more than 700,000 square miles/1.8 million square kilometers of non-central Pacific waters, Pikitch calculated. This is an area larger than the size of the state of Alaska, and about 13.5 times the size of New York State.
Regarding the areas where MPA representation is well under 5 percent or even close to zero, Pikitch says:
“Equitable representation is a guiding principle in all we do, such as in government, and this should also apply to ocean conservation. Most of the waters off our shores with their varied environments and diverse ocean wildlife have been left unprotected. This not only affects sea creatures and the ocean itself but deprives huge portions of human populations, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region, from the economic, ecological, climate, social and cultural benefits that MPAs can provide. Given strong political will we can quickly begin to improve the representativeness within all those regions nationwide that lag in MPA coverage.”
Check out the paper here.