Marine Protected Areas: Restoring, preserving, and protecting the integrity and resilience of our ocean for future generations

By Kristina Rodriguez, Masters of Environmental Management Candidate, Yale School of the Environment | December 1, 2022

Climate change is reshaping the biophysical and chemical characteristics of marine and coastal ecosystems, from increased water temperatures, sea-level rise, intensified natural disasters, and ocean acidification.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a system of nationally designated geographic areas that provide long term protection to marine and coastal ecosystems and remain a critical tool in the fight against climate change. MPAs are directly experiencing climate impacts, as the ocean has absorbed over 90% of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions. MPAs can also build ecological resilience by lessening the impact of non-climate change stressors, such as water pollution, overfishing, and habitat destruction.

When properly managed, these areas can help restore biodiversity and ecosystem services. They also have the capacity to serve as nature-based solutions (NbS) to mitigate the impacts of climate change due to their natural potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere and strengthen the ocean’s resilience.

Integrating climate vulnerability in MPAs

Climate Vulnerability Assessments are valuable adaptation tools to ensure marine ecosystems and resources in protected areas are resilient to the impacts of climate change. Incorporating climate vulnerability assessments into MPAs focuses research and monitoring efforts on observing climate trends, consisting of changing coastal and marine habitats, disrupted coastal upwelling systems and species population shift.

Coral and oyster reefs are two examples of marine habitats that play key roles in providing resiliency benefits, acting as natural buffers from severe storms, sea level rise, flooding, and erosion. Integrating Climate Vulnerability into existing MPAs protects ecosystems and requires both an assessment of climate risks and key marine and coastal habitats for their risk reduction and adaptation potential, including their biodiversity value to ensure the services they provide are effectively captured. As an educational tool, vulnerability assessments raise awareness in local communities on the impacts of climate change.

Enhancing NbS to strengthen climate resiliency

The oceans play a critical role in climate regulation, acting as a buffer to the effects of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and global temperature changes. MPAs are nature-based solutions that protect habitats with the natural ability to store carbon in the atmosphere, while simultaneously strengthening resilience to climate change. Climate resilience is the capacity for systems to sustain natural or human-induced shock. Tidal salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass, and kelp forests are “Blue Carbon” marine habitats, due to their major carbon sink capabilities.  The loss of these habitats comes with a corresponding loss of carbon sequestration capability. MPAs should be evaluated both individually and regionally with respect to their carbon storage capabilities, considering not only the ecosystems and the species composition but also their biological functioning. These enhancements will ensure that the vulnerable carbon sink ecosystems are protected while promoting nature-based solutions.

Implementation and feasibility of Marine Protected Areas

The proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary is the first tribally nominated sanctuary, designated to preserve the marine and cultural resources along the Central California coastline. The Chumash sanctuary is estimated to safeguard the central coast from offshore oil expansion.The Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would set a precedent for incorporating Indigenous perspectives and cultural values in marine conservation.

The proposal of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary offers a unique opportunity to integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge in management decision making and collaboration amongst government agencies across various levels and Indigenous tribal members. Integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge into the development of MPAs can lead to the development of equitable and inclusive conservation practices. The advancement of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary nomination would restructure how Indigenous and federal agencies function with one another as actors between resources.

This proposed sanctuary would protect critical marine ecosystems between the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuaries. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act provides the legal framework to ensure site-specific marine ecosystems are protected through stringent environmental regulations. The legislation provides sanctuaries with the right to implement a permit system intended to regulate and reduce the potential of environmentally degrading human caused threats. The adoption of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would legally protect California’s marine coastal area by prohibiting offshore oil development, prohibit seismic blasting practices, petroleum development, reducing commercial fishing practices, promote sustainable fishing and gathering practices, and prohibit activities that would degrade the seabed health.

Challenges associated with developing Marine Protected Areas 

Creating a scientifically based, comprehensive national system of MPAs that represents diverse marine ecosystems in the U.S. requires strong partnership, supported research and development, public support and participation, and thorough planning to ensure the success of such a complex system.

Enhancing the scientific basis for establishing the effectiveness of MPAs is based on knowing and understanding the living resources of an MPA and how they interact, understanding how human activities affect marine systems, and understanding the societal and economic implications of management decisions. This in-depth level of understanding involves synthesizing existing information, conducting research and monitoring, and knowing which activities should receive the greatest priority and emphasis. Marine resource managers are often faced with management decisions that must permit human activities while deciding based on scant information about the resources that will be affected.

The ocean is undeniably and inevitably part of the solution to combating climate change. There is an urgent need to incorporate climate into site management of MPAs to help restore, preserve, and protect the integrity and resilience of our ocean for future generations.



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