The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Office of Congressional and government Affairs
At A Glance
: Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration, Management and Research
: 10/22/2001
Session: 107th Congress (First Session)
: Susan Roberts

Senior Program Officer, Ocean Studies Board, Division of Earth and Life Studies, The National Academies

: House
: Committee on Resources


Statement of

Dr. Susan Roberts
Ocean Studies Board
Division on Earth and Life Studies
National Academy of Sciences

Before the

Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans
Committee on Resources
U.S. House of Representatives

October 22, 2001

Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you about marine protected areas. My name is Susan Roberts and I am a Senior Program Officer with the Ocean Studies Board at the National Academies. I served as the study director for the National Research Council’s Committee on the Evaluation, Design, and Monitoring of Marine Reserves and Protected Areas in the United States, which was conducted under the oversight of the NRC’s Ocean Studies Board. As you know, the National Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, and was chartered by Congress in 1863 to advise the government on matters of science and technology.

This study evolved from a confluence of interests in the timely and controversial topic of setting aside areas in the marine realm for the conservation of living marine resources. Primary funding was supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the National Marine Fisheries Service and National Marine Sanctuaries Program, with additional funds from the Department of the Interior through the Fish and Wildlife and National Park Services. We assembled a committee of 13 volunteer experts who spent 2 years gathering data, convening 4 meetings around the country with scientists, managers, and stakeholders, and deliberating on the value of using marine protected areas (MPAs) as a management tool for both sustaining marine fisheries and conserving marine biodiversity. The report was released, complete with conclusions and recommendations, in November, 2000 and published by the National Academy Press in May, 2001. My testimony today provides an overview of the findings of that study. My written testimony provides additional detail. Copies of the published report are available upon request.

Recognizing the Limits

In the past, it seemed that the seas were so vast that they could not be harmed by human deeds and therefore needed no protection. However, it is now clear that coastal management and policy must address human impacts such as overfishing, habitat destruction, drainage of wetlands, and pollution that disrupt marine ecosystems and threaten the long-term productivity of the seas.

Advances in oceanography have demonstrated that the sea is not a uniform, limitless expanse, but a patchwork of habitats and water masses occurring at scales that render them vulnerable to disturbance and depletion. The patchiness of the ocean is well known by fishermen who do not cast their nets randomly but seek out areas where fish are abundant. Overfishing has become more of a problem as increases in technology and fishing capacity have placed increased pressure on our native fish populations. Destruction of fish habitat as the result of dredging, wetland drainage, pollution, and ocean mining also contributes to the depletion of valuable marine species. With the continued growth in the demand for seafood and other marine resources, it has become not only more difficult, but also more critical to achieve sustainability in the use of living marine resources. These concerns have stimulated interest in and debate about the value and utility of approaches to marine resource management that provide more spatially defined methods for protecting vulnerable ocean habitats and conserving marine species, especially marine reserves and protected areas. Based on evidence from existing marine area closures in both temperate and tropical regions, marine reserves and protected areas can be effective tools for addressing conservation needs as part of integrated coastal and marine area management.

There have been numerous attempts to develop terms and definitions to encompass the array of applications of MPAs in marine conservation. The committee defined a simplified list of terms for the various types of protected areas, listed here in order of increasing level of protection:

• Marine Protected Areaa discrete geographic area that has been designated to enhance the conservation of marine and coastal resources and is managed by an integrated plan that includes MPA-wide restrictions on some activities such as oil and gas extraction and higher levels of protection on delimited zones, designated as fishery and ecological reserves within the MPA (see below). Examples include the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and marine areas in the National Park system, such as Glacier Bay.

• Marine Reservea zone in which some or all of the biological resources are protected from removal or disturbance. This includes reserves established to protect threatened or endangered species and the more specific categories of fishery and ecological reserves described below.

• Fishery Reservea zone that precludes fishing activity on some or all species to protect critical habitat, rebuild stocks (long-term, but not necessarily permanent, closure), provide insurance against overfishing, or enhance fishery yield. Examples include Closed Areas I and II on Georges Bank, implemented to protect groundfish.

• Ecological Reservea zone that protects all living marine resources through prohibitions on fishing and the removal or disturbance of any living or non-living marine resource, except as necessary for monitoring or research to evaluate reserve effectiveness. Access and recreational activities may be restricted to prevent damage to the resources. Other terms that have been used to describe this type of reserve include “no-take” zones and fully-protected areas. The Western Sambos Reserve in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary provides an example of this type of zoning.

Managing Marine Resources

Management of living marine resources presents numerous challenges. The conventional approach typically involves management on a species-by-species basis with efforts focused on understanding population-level dynamics. For example, most fisheries target one or a few species; hence, managers and researchers have concentrated their efforts on understanding the population dynamics and effects of fishing on a species-by-species basis. Although this approach seems less complex, it does not resolve the difficulties of either managing multiple stocks or accurately assessing the status of marine species. This is compounded by the relative inaccessibility of many ocean habitats, the prohibitive expense of comprehensive surveys, and the complex dynamics and spatial heterogeneity of marine ecosystems. In addition, the species-specific approach may fail to address changes that affect productivity throughout the ecosystem. These changes may include natural fluctuations in ocean conditions (such as water temperature), nutrient over-enrichment from agricultural run-off and other types of pollution, habitat loss from coastal development and destructive fishing practices, bycatch of non-target species, and changes in the composition of biological communities after removal of either a predator or a prey species.

In addition to challenges presented by nature, management must also address challenges presented by social, economic, and institutional structures. Regulatory agencies are charged with the difficult but important task of balancing the needs of current users with those of future users of the resource as well as the long-term interests of the general public. Regulatory actions intended to maintain productivity often affect the livelihoods of the users and the stability of coastal communities, generating pressure to continue unsustainable levels of resource use to avoid short-term economic dislocation. Finally, responsibility for regulating activities in marine areas, extending from estuarine watersheds to the deep ocean, is fragmented among a daunting number of local, state, federal, and international entities. This complexity in jurisdictional responsibility often places a major barrier to developing coordinated policies for managing ocean resources across political boundaries. Although the protected area concept, with its emphasis on management of spaces rather than species, is not new and has been used frequently on land, there has been less support and few interagency efforts to institute protected areas as a major marine management measure. Increased use of MPA-based approaches will shift the focus from agency-specific problem management to interagency cooperation and will facilitate the implementation of marine policies that recognize the spatial heterogeneity of marine habitats and the need to preserve the structure of marine ecosystems.


MPA Design

There are multiple goals for establishing MPAs, such as conserving biodiversity, improving fishery management, protecting ecosystem integrity, preserving cultural heritage, providing educational and recreational opportunities, and establishing sites for scientific research. To promote biodiversity, the siting criteria for an MPA or reserve may include habitat representation and heterogeneity, species diversity, biogeographic representation, presence of vulnerable habitats or threatened species, and ecosystem functioning. To improve fishery management, site choice may depend on the locale of stocks that are overfished to provide insurance against stock collapse or to protect spawning and nursery habitat. Alternatively, a site may be selected to reduce bycatch of nontarget species or juveniles of exploited species. Ranking and prioritizing these objectives may be guided by local conservation needs and/or regional goals for establishing a network of MPAs. Conflicting objectives may require negotiation, trade-offs, and consideration of social and economic impacts.

Effective implementation of marine reserves and protected areas will depend on resolving these conflicting objectives through participation by the community of stakeholders in developing the management plan. Federal and state agencies will need to provide resources, expertise, and coordination to integrate individual MPAs into the broader framework for coastal and marine resource management. Additionally, the needs and concerns of affected communities must be evaluated and considered when choosing sites for marine reserves and protected areas. Stakeholders should be encouraged to participate in the process by employing their expertise as well as considering their concerns.

The task of designing a MPA should follow four sequential steps: (1) evaluate conservation needs at both local and regional levels, (2) define the objectives and goals for establishing the MPA, (3) describe the key biological and oceanic features of the region, and (4) identify and choose

one or more sites that have the highest potential for implementation. At the end of the process, the draft management plan should specify the location, size, and zoning regulations for the proposed MPA. Each of these parameters is described in more detail below.


The success of MPAs depends on the quality of management in the surrounding waters. Therefore, the choice of sites for MPAs should be integrated into an overall plan for marine area management that optimizes the level of protection afforded to the marine ecosystem as a whole. In coastal areas specifically, MPAs will be most effective if sites are chosen in the broader context of coastal zone management, with MPAs serving as critical components of an overall conservation strategy. Management should emphasize spatially oriented conservation strategies that consider the heterogeneous distribution of resources and habitats. Often a single MPA will be insufficient to meet the multiple needs of a region and it will be necessary to establish a network of MPAs and reserves, an array of sites chosen for their complementarity and ability to sustain each other. Site identification should attempt to maximize potential benefits, minimize socioeconomic conflicts, and exclude areas where pollution or commercial development have caused problems so severe that they would override any protective benefit from the reserve.


The optimal size of marine reserves and protected areas should be determined for each location by evaluating the conservation needs and goals, quality and amount of critical habitat, levels of resource use, efficacy of other management tools, and characteristics of the species or biological communities requiring protection. In many cases, specific attributes of the locale (saltmarsh habitat, spawning and nursery grounds, special features such as coral reefs, seamounts, or hydrothermal vents) will determine the size of an effective reserve. In other cases, the dispersal patterns of species targeted for protection, as well as the level of exploitation, should be considered in deciding how much area to enclose within a reserve. To achieve the marine management goals described above will require establishing reserves in a much greater fraction of U.S. territorial waters than the current level of less than 1%. Proposals to designate 20% of the ocean as marine reserves have focused debate on how much closed area will be needed to conserve living marine resources. For sedentary species, protecting 20% of the population will help conserve the stock’s reproductive capacity and may roughly correlate with protecting 20% of that species’ habitat in a reserve. However, the optimal amount of reserve area required to meet a given management goal may be higher or lower depending on the characteristics of the location and its resident species. Size optimization generally will require adjustments to the original management plan based on reserve performance, as determined through research and monitoring. Hence, the first priority for implementing reserve sites should be to include valuable and vulnerable areas rather than to achieve a percentage goal for any given region.

Zones and Networks

Zoning should be used as a mechanism for designating sites within an MPA to provide the level of protection appropriate for each management goal. In many instances, multiple management goals will be included in an MPA plan and zoning can be used to accomplish some of these goals. These zones may include "ecological reserves" to protect biodiversity and provide undisturbed areas for research, "fishery reserves" to restore and protect fish stocks, and "habitat restoration areas" to facilitate recovery of damaged seabeds. Frequently, an MPA is established initially to protect a site from threats associated with large-scale activities such as gravel mining, oil drilling, and dredge spoil disposal. Under these MPA-wide restrictions, there is an opportunity to resolve other conflicting uses of marine resources through zoning of areas within the MPA. Networking should be considered in both zoning and siting of MPAs to ensure long-term stability of the resident populations.

Monitoring and Research

The performance of marine reserves should be evaluated through regular monitoring and periodic assessments to measure progress toward management goals and to facilitate refinements in the design and implementation of reserves. Marine reserves should be planned such that boundaries and regulations can be adapted to improve performance and meet changes in management goals. There are three tasks that should be included in a well-designed monitoring program: (1) assess management effectiveness; (2) measure long-term trends in ecosystem properties; and (3) evaluate economic impacts, community attitudes and involvement, and compliance.

Research in marine reserves is required to further our understanding of how closed areas can be most effectively used in fisheries and marine resource management. Reserves present unique opportunities for research on the structure, functioning, and variability of marine ecosystems that will provide valuable information for improving the management of marine resources. Whenever possible, management actions should be planned to facilitate rigorous examination of the hypotheses concerning marine reserve design and implementation. Research in reserves could provide estimates for important parameters in fishery models such as natural mortality rates and dispersal properties of larval, juvenile, and adult fish. Other research programs could test marine reserve design principles such as connectivity or the effect of reserve size on recovery of exploited species. Modeling studies are needed both to generate hypotheses and to analyze outcomes for different reserve designs and applications.

Institutional Structures

Integration of management across the array of federal and state agencies will be needed to develop a national system of MPAs that effectively and efficiently conserves marine resources and provides equitable representation for the diversity of groups with interests in the sea. The executive order issued by the White House on May 26, 2000, initiates this process through its directive to NOAA (Department of Commerce) to establish a Marine Protected Area Center in cooperation with the Department of the Interior. The goal of the MPA Center shall be "to develop a framework for a national system of MPAs, and to provide Federal, State, territorial, tribal, and local governments with the information, technologies, and strategies to support the system." Implementation of a national system of MPAs should be used to:

• improve regional coordination among marine management agencies;

• develop an inventory of existing MPA sites; and

• ensure adequate regulatory authority and funds for enforcement, research, and monitoring.

Effective enforcement of MPAs will be necessary to obtain cooperation from affected user groups and to realize the potential economic and ecological benefits. Also, coordination among agencies with different jurisdictions will improve the representation of on-site and off-site user groups so that the general public’s cultural and conservation values, as well as commercial and recreational activities, receive consideration. Under current management approaches, these interests are often addressed by different agencies independently of each other and may result in short-term policies that are inconsistent with the nation’s long-term goals.


What are the consequences of not developing a national system of marine reserves and protected areas? Are conventional management strategies sufficient to ensure that our descendents will enjoy the benefits of the diversity and abundance of ocean life? Although it may seem less disruptive to rely on the familiar, conventional management tools, there are costs associated with maintaining a status quo that does not meet conservation goals. Hence, our relative inexperience in using marine reserves to manage living resources should not serve as an argument against their use. Rather, it argues that implementation of reserves should be incremental and adaptive, through the design of areas that will not only conserve marine resources, but also will help us learn how to manage marine species more effectively. The dual realities that the earth’s resources are limited and that demands made on marine resources are increasing, will require some compromise among users to secure greater benefits for the community as a whole. Properly designed and managed marine reserves and protected areas offer the potential for minimizing short-term sacrifice by current users of the sea and maximizing the long-term health and productivity of the marine environment.

Thank you for inviting me to testify. I would be happy to answer any questions the committee might have.