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As we approach 2020, we see little change in marine protected areas (MPAs) in United States waters. At the end of 2019, 23.1% of U.S. waters are in strongly protected areas. 1.3% of state waters are strongly protected, compared to 23.9% of federal waters. These numbers are unchanged since the administration change in 2017. 

Despite lack of progress, based on numbers alone, the U.S. has achieved and exceeded protecting 10% of its marine area. However, conservationists and international agreements call for effectively managed, ecologically representative, and well-connected systems of protected areas. In this regard, the US still falls short. The waters of the United States contain a wide variety of unique ocean habitats and ecosystems, and we have yet to afford them representative or well-connected protection. Prior to President Obama’s establishment of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in 2016, U.S. marine protection was essentially limited to a singular, large marine region in the central Pacific, leaving many unique habitat types in continental waters without protection from destructive practices. 

Even areas which have afforded protections have felt at risk in recent years, as the Trump administration has made attempts to shrink the size of, or re-open our most strongly protected marine national monuments to industrial fishing, such as Papahānaumokuākeathe Pacific Remote Islands, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. For now, those attempts appear to have failed, and existing protected area regulations remain in place.  

As we look to 2020 and beyond, the next questions are, “What progress has been made toward marine protection, and where do we go from here?” To answer the former, members of the marine community have been working toward a common terminology and criteria for measuring and describing marine protection. In 2020, we anticipate early adopting countries to begin assessing MPAs against standardized criteria, and the beginning of a slow integration of this method into regular MPA reporting. 

In regard to what happens next, marine scientists recommend strongly protecting at least 30% of the ocean in ecologically representative and well-connected systems of marine protected areas or other effective conservation measures. At the 2016, International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, a motion was passed by an overwhelming majority to protect at least 30% of each marine habitat in a network of MPAs with the ultimate aim of creating a fully sustainable ocean. Moving forward, the US will need to aim to expand its system of MPAs and integrate strong protections to coastal waters and locations strategically chosen to create a more connected, representative network.