Marine Reserves and Marine Protected Areas


This term is used to describe a variety of conservation and management methods in the waters of the U.S. MPA’s are not necessarily no fishing zones, but the number of proposed MPA’s by environmental organizations calling for permanent closures to recreational fishing have increased in recent years. Marine protected areas that do implement restrictions on angling should be a last resort alternative, designated only when justified by scientifically-based methods and should be monitored and revised as necessary to re-open areas to recreational angling when target stocks are recovered.


A Marine Protected Area (MPA) is a term that encompasses a variety of conservation and management methods in the United States. The official, federal definition of a MPA is: “Any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, tribal, territorial, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein”. In the U.S., there are over 1,000 MPAs that span a range of habitats including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and parts of the Great Lakes.

There are many different types of MPAs that range from protecting cultural and archeological artifacts with few restrictions on public use to Marine Reserves, which prohibit all extractive activities and both recreational and commercial harvest of fisheries resources.  While the vast majority of MPA’s promote recreational fishing as a public use, there are some who advocate for the use of MPAs (specifically Marine Reserves) to create permanent fishing closures in vast areas of both coastal and offshore waters. These restrictive Marine Reserves are often proposed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as a fisheries management tool with little or no scientific justification, and without regard to the effect on recreational fishing. When private funding agendas can influence permanent angler access closures and policy – such as the California Marine Life Protection Act – professional natural resource managers and scientific research are no longer essential. In 2008, a proposal known as “Islands in the Stream” called for a chain of symbolic MPAs with marine reserves from Texas to Florida without any sufficient scientific justification, and no advanced consideration was given to the potential negative economic impacts to the Gulf of Mexico region’s recreational fishing jobs and businesses. Fortunately, through the efforts of the recreational fishing community, the proposal died.

Recently, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries reinstated a sanctuary nomination process that had been suspended for 20 years. With enough local support, anyone can now nominate an area of marine or Great Lake’s waters to be designated as a “sanctuary”, regardless of a science-based need. While sanctuaries and other forms of marine protected areas, including marine reserves, can be useful tools in conserving cultural and fisheries resources, they must be thoroughly vetted with the state natural resource agencies and the area’s stakeholders based on sound science and clearly identifiable and measurable goals. Prohibition on recreational fishing should be a last resort and only implemented if biologically justified and for as short a duration as practicable to meet specific management goals.

Points of Interest

  • Marine Protected Area is a broad term that encompasses many forms of protection of cultural or natural resources. The vast majority of MPA’s allow for and promote recreational fishing. The Marine Reserve is the most restrictive form of MPA’s.
  • Marine Reserves should be designated only as necessary when justified by scientifically-based methods via a transparent and open process. Marine Reserves should be monitored and revised as necessary to ensure effectiveness and include the ability to reopen areas that have been closed to recreational angling once management goals are achieved.
  • The science used for determining Marine Reserve locations should be site specific, because in many areas it is possible to accomplish the same goals with less restrictive means. Should the designation of a Marine Reserve be necessary, planners should strive to determine the smallest possible area that would be effective in achieving the goals of the Marine Reserve.
  • Designating vast swaths of a marine environment as strictly “no-take” fails to acknowledge the socio-economic impacts on local, regional, and national jobs and related businesses, and the cultural heritage of angling and tribal traditions. Stakeholder involvement, that includes the recreational fishing community and state natural resource agencies, among others, is a critical component to compliance. Without compliance, a Marine Reserve designation is self-defeating and will fail to accomplish the intended goals.
  • Depressed fish stocks can usually be rebuilt through less draconian regulations and by relying on recreational anglers as advocates and stewards of the resource.
  • New York introduced a bill (NY A06281) in 2019 that would have established a Marine Life Protection Task Force within the Department of Environmental Conservation to determine laws and regulations pertaining to the species within MPAs. The bill died upon adjournment.
  • In 2020, California introduced (CA AB3030), a bill that looks to preserve 30% of the state’s lands and waters by 2030. Already, over 16% of California’s waters are managed as no take marine reserves  as of 2012. While the bill did not move forward in 2020, additional efforts to add no-take marine reserves under the 30×30 initiative in both state and federal waters are expected in the future.
  • As of 2023, the Biden-Harris Administration began the process of designating a portion of Lake Erie as a national marine sanctuary with the hope of preserving its historical and cultural significance. During the period of public comment, it is highly important that anglers, legislators, and other stakeholders advocate for the continuation of recreational angling access.

Moving Forward

Recreational use of our public waters is not only compatible with, but is essential to, sound conservation and natural resource management. Because of the numerous environmental and public benefits, recreational fishing should be held as a national priority in our nation’s waters and should not be unnecessarily excluded in areas of the ocean through the establishment of overly restrictive forms of MPAs, like marine reserves. If states are considering MPA’s, sportsman-legislators should ensure that there are minimal “no-take” areas, that these areas are periodically assessed for effectiveness, and that opportunities are afforded to recreational anglers to the maximum extent practicable.

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