NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center: 20 Years of Helping U.S. Marine Protected Areas Navigate a Dynamic Ocean

By Charlie Wahle and Lauren Wenzel

May 2020

Twenty years ago, new science was proving the effectiveness of marine protected areas – especially those that fully protect resources by banning fishing – in conserving marine life. Yet at the time, less than one one-thousandth of U.S. marine waters were fully protected. Globally, less than one percent of ocean waters were in any type of marine protected area. In response, ecologists and conservation organizations began to look for a way to enhance the federal government’s approach to ocean protection.

In January 2000, ecologists from leading universities, together with the Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the Cousteau Society, held a workshop that closed with the drafting of a letter to President Clinton, asking him to direct federal agencies to take a more holistic approach to the prevailing piecemeal approach to ocean conservation. The White House responded. On a warm and windy day in May 2000, President Clinton stood at a podium on the beach at Assateague National Seashore and announced Executive Order 13158 to strengthen and expand the nation’s system of marine protected areas. It also created the National Marine Protected Areas Center to champion this goal. Quoting Rachel Carson, the president said, “in the sea, nothing lives to itself... the present is linked with past and future, and each living thing with all that surrounds it.”

fish swimming around an Acropora coral
Highly protected areas, like Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, abound with marine life. Executive Order 13158 on marine protected areas aimed to strengthen and expand marine protected areas for a healthier ocean. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

That theme of connections among ocean places has guided the National Marine Protected Areas Center’s work. The center has been a key part of a global movement to establish and effectively manage marine protected areas for a healthy ocean. Today, 26% of U.S. waters are in a protected area, with 3% in highly protected “no take areas.” And global protection has grown tenfold, to 7% of the world’s ocean. These marine protected areas – like national parks on land – provide places for ocean ecosystems, species, habitats, and people to flourish.

This month, the National Marine Protected Areas Center celebrates its 20th birthday. Dr. Gary Davis, former National Park Service ecologist and member of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, says, “On [the Center’s] watch, we’ve seen the birth of innumerable friendships, collaborations, and partnerships forged into a community of marine protected area policy-makers, practitioners, and scientists, and the birth of a global marine protected area movement based on science and experience. For all of the challenges the ocean still faces in 2020, it is a better and healthier place because of the National Marine Protected Areas Center’s endeavors.” The next decade brings new challenges for marine protected areas.

a group of students look into the distance in front of the ocean
Marine protected areas provide places for people to encounter and learn more about our ocean. Here, student naturalists view seabirds with staff from Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Jennifer Stock/NOAA

Marine Protected Areas Under Threat

Recent times have underscored the stark message that marine protected areas can’t effectively function as static management tools, relying on fixed management approaches to a predictable environment. Instead, marine protected areas face rapidly changing ocean conditions and human uses, most of which were not envisioned when the sites were created years ago. Tides are rising higher; storms are hitting harder and more often; waters are becoming hotter and more acidic; familiar species are being displaced by exotic ones; diseases are decimating biological communities; soundscapes are becoming louder; marine debris is choking habitats; and human uses of all types are expanding rapidly in ways that may threaten a healthy ocean. Marine protected areas cannot thrive without adapting to these trends.

a person fly fishing
The National Marine Protected Areas Center provides information and tools on how people use the ocean for recreation, commercial and subsistence purposes. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The National Marine Protected Areas Center as Problem Solver

Fortunately, the ocean community has a growing momentum to tackle these challenges and to sustain our nation’s marine protected areas in the face of widespread ocean change. Central to this effort is the National Marine Protected Areas Center, a unique partnership between NOAA and the Department of the Interior to support the nation’s marine protected areas through information, tools and networking. The National Marine Protected Areas Center identifies important emerging needs and threats, and works with partners, including the Marine Protected Area Federal Advisory Committee from 2003 to 2019, to create and deliver solutions for marine protected area programs.

For starters, the National Marine Protected Areas Center maintains the nation’s authoritative inventory of all protected areas in US waters through the Marine Protected Area Inventory . We provide tools to help planners and stakeholders understand the number, extent, purposes, and levels of protection of existing areas. Want to know the marine protected areas in your region, and what types of activities are allowed there? The inventory can help.

Since its earliest days, the National Marine Protected Areas Center has recognized the critical but often overlooked role of people in ocean conservation. We highlight human connections to marine protected areas; engage stakeholders in mapping ocean use patterns; identify social science research needs; and work to connect local knowledge of ocean uses to resource management decisions.

sea turtle surrounded by fish
Migratory species like sea turtles can travel extraordinary distances and often use marine protected areas that may be thousands of miles apart as breeding or feeding areas. Marine protected area networks help managers care for these far-flung species during different life stages. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Recognizing climate change as the leading threat to the future of our ocean, and the life-sustaining services it provides, the National Marine Protected Areas Center promotes resilience by sharing experiences, tools, and lessons learned in assessing climate risks and adapting to a changing planet. We also aim to make connections and build networks to support managers. These include sister site partnerships between marine protected areas that have common resources or challenges, or broader networks like the North American Marine Protected Areas Network across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that helps managers address impacts that stretch beyond their site and national boundaries. The National Marine Protected Areas Center also coordinates IMPACT, the International Marine Protected Area Capacity Building Team, which has trained over 5,500 ocean managers from 46 countries over the past 15 years.

Looking ahead to the next 20 years, the National Marine Protected Areas Center will expand its focus on creating and sustaining networks – both of networks of ecologically connected sites, and learning and sharing networks of diverse marine protected areas taking collaborative approaches to shared challenges. As Mike Wong, the regional vice chair for North America for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted, “As the global community starts to recognize that there is really only one ocean, these global collaborative efforts will help to ensure a healthy and sustainable ocean for future generations.”

Charlie Wahle is the senior scientist for the NOAA National Marine Protected Areas Center. Lauren Wenzel is the director of the NOAA National Marine Protected Areas Center.