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News from the National Academies
Date: Nov. 9, 2000
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Associate
Shelley Solheim, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NATIONAL SYSTEM OF PROTECTED OCEAN AREAS WOULD PROMOTE ECOSYSTEM-BASED APPROACH TO CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT

WASHINGTON -- A national system of protected marine areas is needed to overcome the shortcomings of conventional practices used to conserve vulnerable ocean resources, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Effective implementation and enforcement to protect the areas will require coordination among state and federal government agencies and active input from community, commercial, and recreational interests.

In May, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to develop a scientifically based plan for establishing a national system of "marine protected areas," geographically defined areas where human activities are limited. Within some protected areas are marine reserves where the removal or disturbance of some or all living resources is completely prohibited. However, these reserves currently cover less than 1 percent of U.S. waters, as opposed to terrestrial reserves, which cover about 10 percent of public land and are used extensively for conservation purposes.

The report endorses increased use of marine reserves, in concert with conventional management approaches, as tools for managing ocean resources. Examples of existing protected areas include marine locations in the U.S. national park system, national marine sanctuaries, and areas closed to allow recovery of fish stocks.

"Because they are defined by geographical boundaries, marine protected areas offer an approach to conservation that takes the entire ecosystem of a particular area into consideration, rather than targeting specific species for protection," said Edward Houde, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Sciences. "Declining or poorly managed fish populations and damage to marine habitats are discouraging signs that conventional ocean-management practices are insufficient, while recent research demonstrates that properly designed reserves can be effective tools for protecting and restoring ocean ecosystems."

It was once thought that the sheer vastness of the oceans made it impossible to significantly alter marine life or the seafloor, but it is becoming increasingly evident that the oceans are under considerable stress from human activities. Twenty-five percent of commercial fish stocks are overfished, beautiful and life-sustaining habitats such as coral reefs are disappearing or declining in quality, mammals and birds living in or near the sea are endangered, and the diversity of ocean life is threatened.

Conventional approaches to marine management, especially for fisheries, usually focus on individual species, the report says. Regulators typically place restrictions on the number of days fishermen can be at sea and the gear they can use, as well as on the amount and size of fish that can be caught, to try to maintain the population necessary to preserve the reproductive potential of a particular species in a given area. But this strategy may ignore or even exacerbate other problems within that ecosystem. For example, fishing vessels may tow gear such as dredges and trawls to gather bottom-dwelling fish, scallops, and shrimp, but these activities can damage critical habitats and unintentionally capture large quantities of other sea life. In addition, it is difficult and costly to accurately assess the abundance and health of individual fish stocks on which to base regulations.

On the other hand, a growing body of scientific literature documents the potential effectiveness of marine reserves for replenishing overexploited fish stocks, conserving biodiversity, and restoring habitats, the committee found. Studies have shown, for example, that the size of both stocks and individual fish frequently increases in reserves. These larger fish produce more eggs, increasing the overall productivity of the population. One study documented a twofold to threefold increase in egg production by rockfish in a California reserve. A review of several studies looking at biodiversity found that nearly 60 percent of the reserves examined had a greater number of species in protected areas, increasing by a third on average. With regard to habitat protection, researchers in St. Lucia discovered that overfishing of parrotfish, which consume algae, led to algal overgrowth and decline of coral reefs, while in a nearby reserve parrotfish ate enough algae to prevent coral losses.

The committee also evaluated how to best establish and design protected areas. Effective implementation of marine reserves depends on active participation by all stakeholders at the outset of the design process, and an understanding of the probable socioeconomic impacts on local communities. The design process itself should begin with an evaluation of conservation needs at both local and regional levels. Then the objectives and goals of the protected area should be defined, followed by a characterization of key biological and oceanographic features. Special consideration should be given to locations with the capacity to "seed" others through the dispersal of adults or larvae of a species. Once potential sites are identified, the final selection should be based on community concerns.

Within each site, zones should be used to designate reserves with various levels of protection needed to meet each management goal, the report says. For instance, zones may include ecological reserves to protect biodiversity and provide undisturbed areas for research, fishery reserves to restore and protect fish stocks, and habitat restoration areas to facilitate recovery of damaged seabeds. The size of these reserves should be determined based on the conservation needs of each area. Zones with different conservation goals could be set up to offer protection and resolve conflicts over the use of resources. For example, a protected area that currently only forbids oil and gas exploration could include reserves designed to protect endangered species or fish populations.

To overcome fragmented management of marine protected areas -- which can result in different agencies working at cross-purposes -- officials from federal, state, and local governments need to integrate their activities, especially since a system of protected areas will require regional coordination, the report says. In addition, monitoring programs are needed to evaluate reserve performance and improve design as necessary. Likewise, enforcement of marine protected areas will be critical to ensure protection.

When determining the costs and benefits of protected areas, the conservation of biodiversity -- even though it may be difficult to put a price on -- should be included in assessments, the committee said. If benefits are defined strictly in terms of commercial values, some areas may appear to provide little economic gain despite clear benefits to the environment. Redistribution of benefits and costs also needs to be included in economic analyses. For example, establishment of marine reserves may reduce fishing profits in the short term, but provide immediate benefits to the tourism industry. Eventually, fishermen also may benefit economically when the overfished stocks recover.

The committee noted that the overall goal of marine management is to maintain the health of ecosystems beyond the relatively small area protected within reserves. Conventional fishery regulations in open areas as well as controls on damaging activities that have been poorly regulated in the past will still be needed.

The report was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides scientific and technical advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of MARINE PROTECTED AREAS: TOOLS FOR SUSTAINING OCEAN ECOSYSTEMS for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Ocean Studies Board

COMMITTEE ON EVALUATION, DESIGN, AND MONITORING OF MARINE RESERVES AND PROTECTED AREAS IN THE UNITED STATES

EDWARD HOUDE (CHAIR)
Professor
Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies
Chesapeake Biological Laboratory
University of Maryland
Solomons

FELICIA CHISOLM-COLEMAN
Research Faculty
Department of Biological Science
Florida State University
Tallahassee

PAUL DAYTON
Professor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
La Jolla, Calif.

DAVID FLUHARTY
Associate Research Professor
School of Marine Affairs
University of Washington
Seattle

GRAEME KELLEHER
Consultant
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
Canberra
Australia

STEPHEN PALUMBI
Professor
Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

ANA MARIA PARMA
Population Dynamicist
International Pacific Halibut Commission
Seattle

STUART PIMM
Professor
Department of Zoology and Graduate Program in Ecology
University of Tennessee
Knoxville

CALLUM ROBERTS
Professor
Environment Department
University of York
Heslington, York
United Kingdom

SHARON SMITH
Professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
University of Miami
Miami

GEORGE SOMERO*
David and Lucille Packard Professor of Marine Science
Hopkins Marine Station
Stanford University
Pacific Grove, Calif.

RICHARD STOFFLE
Senior Research Anthropologist
Department of Anthropology
University of Arizona
Tucson

JAMES WILEN
Professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics
Agricultural Experimental Station
College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
University of California
Davis

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

SUSAN ROBERTS
Study Director


*Member, National Academy of Sciences