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First Time That 50 Largest US Marine Protected Areas Assessed for Effectiveness Using Rigorous Scientific Criteria; Almost 100% of US MPA ‘Eggs’ Are in One Basket in the Central Pacific

Effective Marine Conservation in US Is Not Representative; Most Regions Have Close to Zero Area Effectively Protected

[Seattle, Washington, USA, May 18, 2022]

One way humanity can harness the ocean to fight climate change and reverse the ongoing crisis in biodiversity and loss of species –though not the only way- is to establish effective marine protected areas (MPAs) including at least 30% of every ocean ecosystem. For the first time ever, scientists have assessed the quality of the majority (99.7%) of US marine protected areas to see if they have protection levels and management capable of mitigating climate change and protecting marine life. Using rigorous criteria from The MPA Guide, a peer reviewed methodology published in the respected journal Science in 2021, three Marine Conservation Institute researchers with a group of 31 scientists published a comprehensive analysis in Frontiers in Marine Science which concludes that US marine protection efforts are almost entirely concentrated in the central Pacific ocean with almost no meaningful protection along the coasts of the continental US.

Percent marine area in any kind of implemented MPA by US region.

Researchers used Marine Conservation Institute’s Marine Protection Atlas database and MPA Assessment platform to conduct the MPA Guide assessments that were the core data set for this paper.  The level of protection afforded by the MPAs included in this study can be explored in the Marine Protection Atlas interactive map application with more detailed information used to evaluate sites against the MPA Guide framework.

Marine Protection Atlas showing MPAs by level of protection, explore it yourself at

Researchers found good news and bad news:

  • The good news is that 26% of US oceans are already protected by MPAs, a long way towards the goal of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 that is envisioned in the Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful plan proposed by the administration.  A total of 25.3% of US waters are in fully or highly protected areas, the level of protection that makes a real difference for marine life and healthy oceans.
  • The bad news is that 96% of all US MPA area and 99% of fully and highly protected areas that yield real conservation benefits are concentrated in the central Pacific in a group of large marine monuments designated first by President George Bush in 2006 and 2009 and then expanded by President Obama in 2014 and 2016. Thus, almost all of our marine conservation ‘eggs’ are in one huge Pacific basket.
  • More bad news. More than 98% of US waters outside these well protected central Pacific MPAs have no durable, high level of protection from extractive activities like fishing or other damaging human impacts; and the 1.9% that do have some protection are only lightly or minimally protected and therefore have little to offer for marine life or climate change resilience.
  •  Thus the MPAs that are effective at mitigating climate change and preventing loss of species are almost all in one place. Vast areas of our ocean on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico are hardly protected at all. See table below.
  • To really tackle the impacts of climate change on oceans, protect species, and provide ocean access to underserved populations (another goal of the America the Beautiful plan), well protected MPAs must be located across different representative marine ecosystems on those coasts where the majority of US population and important marine life live. And they are not.

50 Largest MPAs by Region, Percent of Region and Level of Protection

RegionTotal Marine Area (km2)*Total MPA Area for 50 Largest (km2)**Percent of Marine Area in 50 Largest MPAsPercent of Each Region’s MPA Area Fully or Highly Protected
Northeast (Maine-Virginia)514,01124,3244.7%66.9%
Northwest (OR, WA)247,79910,3054.2%0.0%
Pacific (HI, Am Samoa, Guam, CNMI)5,802,1563,065,88552.8%99.9%
Southeast (NC – Texas incl. Gulf of Mexico, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands)1,421,34829,5492.1%16.1%
Source: Table 3 in Frontiers in Marine Science. Jenna Sullivan-Stack et al (2022). A Scientific Synthesis of Marine Protected Areas in the United States: Status and Recommendations
*Includes all federal, state, and territorial waters
** Includes all federal, state, territorial MPAs if part of the top 50 largest MPAs
Note: To calculate the percentage of marine area in each region covered by fully and highly protected area, multiply last two columns. Example: For Alaska multiply 0.007 times 0.197 which equals 0.00137 or 0.1%.

Beth Pike, Director of the Marine Protection Atlas and a co-author on this paper, said, “There are not enough strong, effective marine protected areas in the US. Although the total coverage of MPAs – 26% of US waters– indicates we are close to achieving the total target of at least 30%, one region of US ocean in the central Pacific provides almost all of it. We have the tools to build better MPAs that will deliver tangible conservation benefits to marine life and communities and provide ocean access to all, but we need to use those tools around the whole coast of the US not just in the far away areas of the Pacific. Marine Conservation Institute’s Atlas of Marine Protection and The MPA Guide framework can show the way to representative, effective protection.”

Russell Moffitt, Director of Strategic Partnerships and also a paper co-author, said, “These results highlight the urgent need to improve the quality, quantity, and representativeness of MPA protection across all US oceans. Only that will bring the climate mitigation, species preservation, and community access benefits that strong MPAs can provide to the entire US. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket in the central Pacific and expect to conserve marine biodiversity throughout our ocean.”


Press Background 

Link to article in Frontiers in Marine Science
Infographic (1-page) [pdf]
Summary Document (4-pages) [pdf]
Maps, Photos, Data Tables

About Marine Conservation Institute

Marine Conservation Institute, founded in 1996, works in the U.S. and globally to seek strong protection for at least 30% of the ocean by 2030—for us and future generations. Our focus on protecting the ocean’s most important places follows several lines of work: identifying and advocating for strong marine protected areas; improving laws and other tools to better conserve marine biodiversity; catalyzing effective conservation by recognizing and elevating the best marine protected areas as Blue Parks; and accurately reporting on global conservation efforts with our Marine Protection Atlas (