Marine Protected Areas

 In the last decades humans have increasingly overexploited the oceans. Traditional approaches to ecosystem management have focused on the conservation of single species, without considering impacts to the surrounding ecosystem. But this approach has sometimes led to dynamic shifts in ecosystems, including changes in dominant ocean predators that result in cascades through the food web. Rather than try to protect single species, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) function to protect all the important organisms and linkages within an ecosystem.

MPAs help protect the entire ecosystem to maintain ocean health and biodiversity.

They are one of a suite of emerging tools that are being increasingly used to protect the entire ecosystem to help maintain ocean health and biodiversity.

Generally, the term “marine protected area’ refers to a bounded area in which various extractive activities are excluded.  While many MPAs are complete no-take areas, some may allow limited recreational and/or commercial uses. Complete no-take areas are referred to as Marine Reserves. Increasingly, networks of MPAs are being implemented in an effort to increase the conservation benefits across biogeographic regions as well as to spread the risks of potential loss of biodiversity in any one area.


While there may be both costs and benefits to Marine Protected Areas, when implemented correctly, the potential benefits of networks of MPA include:

  • helping to protect species targeted by fisheries, as well as their ecological roles and the structure and functional processes of the ecosystems they inhabit

  • helping to protect habitats that support both those species that are targeted by  fisheries and others that are not

  • enhancement of non-extractive uses of marine areas, like eco-tourism.

  • creation of undisturbed locations for scientific studies that can further improve resource management and conservation.

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design and Monitoring

One of the major areas that PISCO science aims to inform is the design of MPAs and their networks. Once a need for a MPA has been identified, two key questions have to be asked:

  1. How should they be designed to best meet their intended goals?

  2. What is the best available science for informing that design

PISCO’s research and policy and outreach program are designed to produce information to inform the design of MPA networks and assure that the best available scientific information is available to processes involved in their development.

Once an MPA or network of MPAs has been established, two key questions have to be asked:

  1. Are they meeting goals for which they were established?

  2. Might their design be improved for meeting their goals (e.g., size, location)? 

To determine how well MPAs are effectively fulfilling their goals, PISCO scientists monitor MPAs and the surrounding ecosystem to document the response of populations and ecosystems to the establishment of the MPAs. PISCO’s experience in operating large scale, long-term monitoring programs has enabled it to inform the design and implementation of monitoring programs for the kelp forests and rocky shore ecosystems it studies, including the coastal oceanography.   Adapting PISCO’s kelp forest, rocky shore and oceanographic monitoring program for MPA networks in the California Channel Islands and central coast of California, PISCO has helped to document changes in kelp forest ecosystems in recently established MPAs in the Channel Islands and establish the baseline conditions of populations and kelp forest ecosystems on the central coast.


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