A Park System For Our World Oceans

By Sandra Curtis

As marine biodiversity is rapidly declining due to plastic pollution, climate change, overfishing, ocean acidification and other threats, protection efforts are essential in improving ocean life in tropical and temperate ecosystems. These benefits have motivated nations to establish Marine Protected Areas in their ocean territories, and international bodies are working to establish MPAs on the high seas.

In 1999, the California State Legislature formally recognized the need to protect its 1,100-mile coastline with the passage of the Marine Life Protection Act, which safeguards the long-term health of California's marine life and natural heritage through the establishment of a statewide network of Marine Protected Areas. MPAs function like a national park system for the oceans, where human activity is managed and regulated. 

In 2012 on World Oceans Day, the Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute, in partnership with the Waitt Foundation, launched the interactive MPAtlas, an online digital map of MPAs around the world. 

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is the largest Marine Protected Area in the world, larger than the sum total of all U.S. national parks on land.

The Marine Life Protection Act recognizes that a combination of MPAs with varied amounts of allowable activities and protections (marine reserves, marine conservation areas, and marine parks) can help conserve biological diversity, provide a sanctuary for marine life, and enhance recreational and educational opportunities. MPAs can also provide scientific reference points to assist with resource management decisions, and protect a variety of marine habitats, communities, and ecosystems for their economic and intrinsic value, for generations to come.

Five regional areas have been designated along California’s coast, each of which has its own MPA planning process. They include North Coast, North Central Coast, Central Coast and South Coast, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area and the Channel Islands. The statewide coastal network of MPAs includes creating over 120 underwater refuges from Oregon to Mexico.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife is the lead state agency managing the implementation of information outreach to the public about the MPA system. They developed initial materials, which are being supplemented by the regional groups. Some groups are creating additional coastal signage, others are making videos and some are developing school packets. The goal is to increase MPA awareness and understanding, facilitate compliance with MPA regulations, support enforcement, and encourage informed enjoyment and stewardship of MPAs.

Of the six goals that guided the development of MPAs in the planning process, the opportunity to educate the public about plastic pollution fits squarely in the following goal: Improve recreational, educational and study opportunities provided by marine ecosystems that are subject to minimal human disturbance, and to manage these uses in a manner consistent with protecting biodiversity. 

The other goals speak to the following: protecting the natural diversity and abundance of marine life, and the integrity of marine ecosystems; sustaining, conserving and protecting marine life populations, and rebuilding those that are depleted; protecting marine natural heritage, including protection of representative and unique marine life habitats in California's waters for their intrinsic values; and finally, ensuring California's MPAs are based on sound scientific guidelines, have clearly defined objectives, effective management and adequate enforcement.

The goal of the ongoing forums is to create the network of working groups as directed by the MLPA that will share resources and collaborate to implement the Act in protecting the state's marine life, habitats, ecosystems, and natural heritage. 

Sandra Curtis is PPC’s Director of Innovative Projects and serves on the MPA planning committee for Sonoma County in Northern California.