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America’s best idea to protect its oceans has one big problem: It’s not working

Protected areas cover more than a quarter of US waters, yet they often don’t safeguard marine life.

A humpback whale jumps out of the water in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

The United States is famous for its vast system of national parks on land. From the Grand Canyon to the Great Smoky Mountains, these parks altogether encompass more than 130,000 square miles.

Far larger, however, is the country’s network of parks in the ocean — its marine protected areas, or MPAs. They cover more than a million square miles, which amounts to roughly 26 percent of all US waters.

These areas form one of the largest networks of marine protected areas in the world. Together, they’re also close to achieving a key conservation target known as 30 by 30, a goal pledged by the Biden administration to conserve at least 30 percent of all land and ocean within US jurisdiction by 2030.

But while impressive, these numbers are also misleading.

Marine protected areas do safeguard enormous amounts of ocean against harmful activities, such as commercial fishing and oil drilling, yet nearly all of that protection is in just one spot: the central Pacific. That leaves coastal ecosystems across most of the continental US — where industrial fishing is common — largely defenseless.

A map of marine protected areas (MPAs) in US ocean waters.
Nearly all protected ocean in the US is in the central and western Pacific.
Jenna Sullivan-Stack et al | Frontiers in Marine Science

Where parks do exist in coastal waters, such as around New England, many of them are protected in name only; they permit harmful activities including bottom trawling, a destructive commercial fishing technique that involves dragging a large net across the seafloor. These threats have damaged important ecosystems in parts of the ocean that are, by law, supposed to be conserved.

The Biden administration is now looking to expand its network of marine parks. The question is: What will any additional “protection” actually do to conserve our ailing seas?

Many marine “sanctuaries” are not sanctuaries at all

Just as there’s a wide variety of parks on land — not only national parks but state parks, wildlife refuges, and so forth — there is also a range of different parks in the ocean. Broadly categorized as marine protected areas, they include regions like national marine monuments and national marine sanctuaries.

Generally speaking, the point of these areas is to provide some level of protection against harmful industries. Over the last century, oil exploration, fishing, and pollution have damaged ocean ecosystems in the US and elsewhere. That in turn has endangered marine organisms and the many benefits they provide, from sucking up carbon dioxide (thanks kelp) to dampening storm surge during a hurricane (yay, coral reefs).

A giant trevally swims in the blue waters of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the largest marine park in the US, located in the central Pacific.
John Burns/NOAA

But these areas have a couple of big shortcomings.

The first is that many marine parks simply don’t restrict even the most harmful human activities. Some protected areas in a category called National Marine Sanctuaries, for example, are hardly protected at all, a handful of marine scientists told me.

The primary purpose of marine sanctuaries — which are found along the coasts, and in the Great Lakes and Pacific — is to safeguard marine “resources,” such as fish and historic shipwrecks. Typically, however, people are allowed to fish and boat in large parts of these areas as long as those activities are “compatible” with conserving the marine environment over the long term.

Often, those activities are not compatible. Many marine sanctuaries allow for industrial fishing, and even bottom trawling, which can severely damage the seafloor and catch all kinds of critters that are not targeted by the fishing operation (ie., bycatch). Sanctuaries often allow these activities to continue even after research shows they’re damaging marine habitats.

“Is bottom trawling really compatible with the primary objective of resource protection? I would say probably not,” said Priscilla Brooks, director of ocean conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation. “Many sanctuaries are really sanctuaries in name only.”

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that many sanctuaries are degraded or in decline. In December 2021, the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research organization, published a report on the status of resources within 14 marine sanctuaries. It found that well over a third of the indicators used to assess the health of these areas showed measurable, severe, or widespread impacts, often as a result of fishing.

“Protection offered by sanctuaries may not be sufficient to protect the resources and habitats for which they were designated,” authors of the report concluded.

From the Caribbean to New England, legal fishing has damaged marine life inside sanctuaries

About 25 miles east of Boston is a cold stretch of the Atlantic Ocean that boasts an enormous number of marine species. It’s home to commercially important fish like Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna but also North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species, and several kinds of sea turtles and seabirds.

The region is technically protected by a marine sanctuary called Stellwagen Bank. Yet, you can boat, drop anchors, and fish throughout most of it, both recreationally and commercially. Large areas of the sanctuary also allow for bottom trawling.

A bottom trawler in Stellwagen Bank.

These and other activities have caused “measurable degradation of habitat quality over the past ten years” in the sanctuary, according to a 2020 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency that oversees the sanctuaries. Entanglement in commercial fishing gear and ship strikes are also the leading causes of death for right whales, the agency says.

Still these activities continue in much of the “sanctuary.”

On the southern end of the East Coast is another park that’s both imperiled and largely unprotected: the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary surrounds the largest coral reef in the continental US, which curves southwest of Miami for about 220 miles. The Keys provide habitat for roughly 80 species of coral and a tremendous diversity of wildlife including lobsters, manatees, dolphins, and a number of fish that people like to eat, such as swordfish and yellowtail snapper.

Coral reefs are declining at a troubling clip worldwide — and especially here.

“We’ve lost 90 percent of the corals in The Keys,” said Michael Gravitz, director of policy and legislation at the Marine Conservation Institute, an ocean research organization. The Keys have also lost thousands of acres of seagrass, he said, which get ripped up by boat propellers. Nonetheless, Gravitz said, you can still fish and boat in most of the sanctuary.

Boats in shallow waters in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Fishing is just one problem in the Keys. Rising ocean temperatures linked to climate change, hurricanes, and disease are also a major source of damage to the reef’s biodiversity. And even the strongest marine parks can’t directly protect ecosystems against these threats. Limiting fishing and other human impact can, however, help maintain abundant and diverse wildlife communities that tend to be more resilient to these sorts of impacts.

Not all marine sanctuaries are poorly protected against fishing and suffering steep declines. Some of them also overlap with strictly managed protected areas. Plus, sanctuaries often also serve other functions, such as prohibiting oil and gas development and promoting research on marine life. Yet marine scientists told me that, at least for some of these protected areas, the term “sanctuary” is misleading.

The roadblock to stronger marine protected areas

Marine sanctuaries are notably different from other kinds of marine parks. Unlike marine monuments and ecological reserves — which tend to prohibit fishing — sanctuaries are meant to allow for access and some uses, assuming those actions are in line with long-term conservation, according to Matt Brookhart, a regional director in NOAA’s sanctuary program.

Yet the sanctuaries program itself acknowledges that not all fishing in these areas is in line with conservation, Brookhart said. Bottom trawling, for example, typically has “very damaging effects on the environment,” he said.

The sanctuaries office technically does have the authority to restrict fishing within the areas it manages, Brookhart said. Acting on that authority, however, is often complicated and tends to require buy-in from a wide range of parties, including the fishing industry. (Complicating this further, a separate office within NOAA manages fisheries and has a more narrow aim of protecting commercial species than whole ecosystems.) The result is that the sanctuaries program doesn’t exercise much control over commercial fishing within their waters.

Representatives of the fishing industry also recognize that commercial fishing can damage the marine environment. They emphasize that fishers work hard to limit their impacts. For example, fishery councils around the country — which represent the fishing industry and manage fisheries — set rules to control what gear fishers can use in certain places, such as bottom trawls, and to minimize the amount of bycatch. Fisheries are also governed by a law, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, that aims to ensure that fisheries are sustainable, such as by limiting catch. (Many marine experts say the act is insufficient on its own to conserve biodiversity.)

Still, there are only so many impacts the industry can limit.

Michelle Bachman, a fishery analyst at the New England Fishery Management Council — which oversees a region of the northeast that envelopes Stellwagen sanctuary — said bottom trawling is an effective way to catch certain species.

“It’s a little bit of a bigger question for society,” she said of whether fishers trawl. “If we want to eat those sorts of animals,” she said, which include flounders and other species that tend to hang out near the seafloor, people should understand “that’s how you catch them.”

Nearly all ocean protection is concentrated in one region

As bad as this sounds, these poorly protected marine parks are not the norm; they represent only a fraction of the 26 percent of ocean that the US protects.

But if you look at where the strictly managed parks are located — the ones that are really doing their job and protecting marine life — another problem appears. About 99 percent of “highly or fully” protected ocean area is in the central Pacific, according to one 2022 study. Most of it is within just a handful of enormous parks around the Pacific Islands. (Fully or highly protected areas are those that prohibit most or all destructive activities.)

Part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific seen from the air.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

The result is bleak: While the US network of marine parks is indeed vast, it does little to protect the full diversity of its ocean habitats. Less than 2 percent of US seas outside the central Pacific have any form of marine protection, let alone areas that are well protected, the 2022 study found. And safeguarding large stretches of the Pacific does nothing to help beleaguered coastal ecosystems in the Atlantic, Caribbean, or West Coast.

There’s a notable mismatch here, said Luiz Rocha, a marine scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, a science museum and research organization. In many regions of the Pacific that are now protected, commercial fishing wasn’t actually a big threat to begin with. It’s much harder to protect parts of the ocean of which industries want a piece.

“We’ve created no-take protected areas in places where there is no fishing, and we call that success,” said Angelo Villagomez, a senior fellow and marine expert at the Center for American Progress, who’s from an island in the western Pacific. “Are we truly protecting the world’s ocean if we’re only banning fishing in places where there really wasn’t much fishing to begin with?”

In an interview with Vox, Lauren Wenzel, director of NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center, underscored the value of putting large parks in the Pacific; they encompass entire ecosystems, she said. She also acknowledged the need to create more protected areas in the continental US. Echoing Rocha, Wenzel said the challenge of putting more protected areas there is that “we have really busy oceans and we have lots of vested interests.”

NOAA does not have a unifying directive to spread parks evenly across different marine habitats, Wenzel said, though a small subset of protected areas factor in “ecological representation.”

“Those are practices that we need to be striving for,” she said.

The problem with 30 by 30

The placement and rules of protected areas may sound a bit wonky, but this matters a lot today. Not only are ocean ecosystems still in decline, but the US is also looking to grow its network of marine parks.

In his first week in office, President Joe Biden pledged to “conserve” at least 30 percent of all land and ocean by 2030, a goal known as 30 by 30. Nearly all countries have now signed on to the same target (which they formally agreed to last fall at the United Nation’s big biodiversity meeting).

The 30 by 30 goal is historic and promoted widely by conservation groups. Yet some scientists question the value of these sorts of area-based targets altogether. If 30 percent of the ocean is protected in just one area — or if those protections lack teeth — 30 by 30 may not actually conserve nature or help fight the biodiversity crisis.

“I could come up with a design that protects 70 percent of the ocean and it has no conservation effect,” Rocha said.

Wenzel of NOAA acknowledges that 30 percent is an imprecise endpoint. The focus, she said, should be on the outcome: having healthy oceans that provide benefits to people who need them. “Thirty is a milestone, not an endpoint,” she said. (She avoided talking about the specific percent of ocean that the US should try to protect.)

To achieve that outcome, something will have to give. Commercial fishing, boating, and marine recreation are not inherently a problem, said Brooks of Conservation Law Foundation, and many people benefit from these activities. But right now, they are overwhelming parts of the ocean, and even protected areas.

“If we are going to achieve 30 by 30, if we are going to create a healthy ocean, we need to do a better job at designing MPAs,” Villagomez said. “If you allow bottom trawling, that’s not happening.”

Clarification, May 23, 10:47 am ET: A previous version of this story referred to the New England Fishery Management Council as an industry group. While it comprises members from the commercial and recreational fishing sector, it’s not funded by the fishing industry.

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