Habitat and Communities: Marine Reserves and Marine Protected Areas

While you might not guess it from this photo, located off the coast of southern California, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is adjacent to the growing counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara, and not far from the heavily populated Los Angeles metropolitan area. Photo: NOAA's National Ocean Service.Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are versatile management tools that can be used to help conserve marine natural and cultural resources, and can be an integral part of an ecosystem approach to management. Regional Fishery Management Councils, including the Pacific Council, have established MPAs in order to help rebuild stocks, maintain biological productivity, and support sustainable marine fisheries. NOAA has created an interactive MPA mapping tool that shows the location of U.S. MPAs and provides information about their management.

The United States has many types of MPAs created for many purposes, including conservation of natural heritage, cultural heritage and sustainable production. MPAs are defined by the NOAA MPA Center as “any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.” Marine reserves are a subset of this definition, and include restrictions on some or all extractive activities.

What is the difference between a marine reserve and a marine protected area?

The terms “marine reserve” and “marine protected area” overlap but have different meanings. The Council uses the term “marine reserve” to mean an area where some or all fishing is prohibited for a lengthy period of time. This is similar to the definition of a “fishery reserve” created by the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council:

“Zoning that precludes fishing activity on some or all species to protect critical habitat, rebuild stocks (long term, but not necessarily permanent closure), provide insurance against overfishing, or enhance fishery yield.” (Ocean Studies Board, 2001)

Marine reserves are types of marine protected areas. A marine protected area is a “geographic area with discrete boundaries [like the boundaries of a piece of real estate or a park] that has been designated to enhance the conservation of marine resources” (Ocean Studies Board). For example, a marine protected area might prohibit activities like oil and gas drilling, while allowing fishing. The Council’s focus on marine reserves as “no fishing” areas (or areas where only certain types of fishing are allowed) reflects its area of regulatory authority: fishing.

Marine Protected Areas

Hypothetical example of a marine protected area, a marine reserve, and a no-take marine reserve. Regulations in brackets are examples only, though a no-take marine area means no fishing is allowed.

Why is the Council interested in marine reserves?

The Council’s interest in marine reserves began due to issues in the groundfish fishery. For many reasons, certain groundfish stocks have declined to lower than desired levels. Darkblotched rockfish, yelloweye rockfish, canary rockfish, bocaccio, Pacific ocean perch, and cowcod are currently designated as overfished. Rebuilding plans for these species are in progress.

Marine reserves provide one tool to control fishing mortality. For example, a Cowcod Conservation Area protect cowcod off southern California. In this case, marine reserves were used to eliminate groundfish harvests in areas with high cowcod bycatch rates.

Marine reserves can also be a valuable management tool when the status of a fish stock is uncertain. The best available scientific knowledge about stock status may also be highly uncertain and prone to significant changes as we learn more. Also, stock assessments have been done for only about 32 of the 90+ groundfish species managed by the Council, so marine reserves may offer some protection for unassessed sedentary species (those that do not move around much relative to the size of the reserve), which are not well-understood.

As a harvest management tool, marine reserves can be particularly helpful for sedentary species that produce dramatically more offspring as they get older. Traditional fisheries often remove these larger, more productive fish. More mobile species may benefit if marine reserves can be used to preserve habitat from damage by fishing gear and other human activities, or to preserve ecosystems that are vital to fish survival.

Marine reserves can also have educational and research value. To successfully manage these resources, managers need better knowledge of the biology, habits, and behaviors of fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them.

Below is the Council’s list of objectives for groundfish marine reserves, in priority order:

Objective 1: Stock rebuilding. Assist in rebuilding overfished stocks and maintaining them at productive levels.
Objective 2: Biological productivity. Enhance long-term biological productivity.
Objective 3: Economic productivity. Assist in achieving long-term economic production, while minimizing short-term negative economic impact on all users.
Objective 4: Insurance. Provide protection for the resource, as a hedge against the realities of management uncertainty and the effects of natural environmental variability.
Objective 5: Habitat protection. Conserve and protect essential fish habitat.
Objective 6: Research and education. Provide unfished areas for research that will serve as controls for assessment of the effects of long-term environmental variations and the potential habitat alterations due to fishing, and also increase our understanding of the role marine reserves may play in fishery management.

What authority does the Council have to create marine reserves?

The Council has two separate authorities regarding marine reserves and marine protected areas under two different federal statutes, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA). Each statute independently gives the Council different authority in different situations.

Acronym Definition
FMP Fishery Management Plan
NMFS National Marine Fisheries Service
NMSA National Marine Sanctuaries Act
SSC Scientific and Statistical Committee

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Council proposes regulations for review, approval and implementation by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a sub-agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Under the NMSA, the Council is given the opportunity to draft regulations for review, approval, and implementation by the National Ocean Service (NOS), also a sub-agency of NOAA.

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Council has jurisdiction over fish from three to 200 nautical miles offshore. Generally, the Council recommends regulations only for species that have a Federal fishery management plan (FMP) prepared by the Council and approved by NMFS. For the West Coast (Washington, Oregon and California), FMPs have been approved for groundfish, salmon, highly migratory species, and coastal pelagic species. For species not covered by an FMP, the Council could propose emergency regulations to be effective for up to one year, while it develops an FMP. The Council can also impose certain restrictions on the take of FMP species in non-FMP fisheries. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Council can and does recommend to NMFS fishing regulations that are effective within National Marine Sanctuaries, but only for FMP species.

While the Council can recommend the creation of marine reserves under its Magnuson-Stevens Act authority, it has limited ability to protect fish and habitat in the marine reserve from anything other than fishing impacts. For example, the Council does not control dredging, dumping, or other potentially damaging activities. However, the Council can comment to state and Federal agencies about actions that may harm marine reserve areas. One example would be if an agency wanted to issue a permit for dumping dredge materials in fish habitat.

National Marine Sanctuaries are designated under the NMSA as having special national significance. They are a type of marine protected area, but are not necessarily marine reserves (see definitions above). Under the NMSA, regulation of fishing by a particular Sanctuary is allowed only if that Sanctuary’s designation document allows regulation of fishing. Also under the NMSA, Councils are given the opportunity to draft regulations governing all types of fishing in the Federal waters of a National Marine Sanctuary (not just for fisheries covered under a Council FMP). Any recommendations made by Councils to be implemented under the NMSA must fulfill the purposes and policies of the NMSA and the goals and objectives of that particular Sanctuary.

The flowchart below shows a simplified outline of authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and NMSA.

Additional information

For more information on the Council’s consideration of marine reserves, please contact Mr. Kerry Griffin at (503) 820-2280 ext. 409, or toll free 1-866-806-7204.