Several nations worldwide are wrestling with the challenge of building cohesive and effective systems of MPAs in their waters. In the US, when former President Bill Clinton declared by executive order in 2000 that his nation develop a comprehensive national system of MPAs (MPA News 1:9), few details were available on how that mandate should be accomplished. Fleshing out the details – including what exactly a “national system” of MPAs is – has largely been the responsibility of a federal interagency program, the National Marine Protected Areas Center, established by the same executive order.

The MPA Center, as it is known, is in the process of developing a framework for what the US national system should be: its purpose, goals, and processes for implementation. In doing so, it is soliciting input from management authorities and stakeholders nationwide, and receiving expert opinion from a federal advisory committee (see box, “US advisory committee on MPAs offers recommendations”, at the end of this article). To examine the MPA Center’s progress so far and what it hopes the US system will ultimately achieve, MPA News discusses development of the system with Jonathan Kelsey, national system coordinator, and Dana Topousis, communications director, of the MPA Center.

MPA News: The US has hundreds of MPAs already designated at various governmental levels. When you say you want to develop a “national system” of these, what do you mean?

Jonathan Kelsey: With some exceptions – like in the Florida Keys – this existing set of individual MPAs and programs at the state and federal levels is not coordinated in a way that maximizes effectiveness, such as by developing and working toward common management goals. The national system we are developing is intended to do just that. It will build partnerships at the regional and national levels with existing sites and programs to promote coordination of effort, like for planning and management. The national system will also look for efficiencies in addressing common needs and integrating the main conservation purposes for which MPAs are most often designated – natural heritage, cultural heritage, and sustainable production. [Editor’s note: Italy is another country that is working to coordinate its MPAs: a national project, Sistema Afrodite, is coordinating research and monitoring at sites throughout the nation’s waters (MPA News 5:3).]

MPA News: Will the US national system be different from a “network” of MPAs?

Kelsey: A national system of MPAs is a set of sites that collectively meets common national, regional, and ecosystem-based goals, and supports coordination across those sites and their programs. Within that system, an ecologically connected network of MPAs would be a tool used at the regional or ecosystem level to protect related areas associated with key life-history stages of marine resources, such as spawning or nursery habitats. So networks of sites would be subsets of the US national system. Incidentally, networks could also be used to connect series of related cultural marine resources, such as shipwrecks.

MPA News: What are some of the challenges the MPA Center has faced so far in building the national system?

Dana Topousis: One challenge is ensuring that government agencies and other stakeholders understand how essential their feedback is to developing an effective MPA system. To ensure transparency for our process, we have held public and agency workshops in several regions around the country, and have made sure the US website on MPAs ( has the latest information about the process.

Another challenge has been the complexity of MPA terminology. In many peoples’ minds, the term “MPA” means no-take reserve – a misconception since MPAs normally include a range of sites from multiple-use, to no-take, to no-access. At the same time, we have found that the definition of MPA found in the executive order is too vague: it contains key terms that can be interpreted in many ways [see box, “Tightening the definition of ‘MPA'”, following this article]. A more refined definition of MPA, specifically for the purpose of establishing criteria for the national system, is something on which we are seeking input.

MPA News: When do you anticipate the system of MPAs will be completed?

Kelsey: Once the framework document for the national system is finalized, hopefully by early 2007, we will use it to identify existing sites that meet the system’s criteria. We will then consult with the management agencies and authorities for those sites to determine if they are interested in participating. We hope to complete this initial national system of existing MPAs and begin working with those participating sites and programs on priority needs by the end of 2007. In the meantime, the MPA Center will begin work with pilot regions to identify regional MPA priorities. This will take several years and involve our working collaboratively with managing agencies [at federal and state levels] and interested stakeholders, region by region. A complete set of regional priorities could be completed by 2011.

MPA News: Australia has adopted a similar regional approach in developing its own national system of MPAs (MPA News 5:3 and 5:11). One part of its process has involved engaging regional stakeholders to help plan new MPAs. Will the planning of new MPAs play a role in developing the US MPA system?

Topousis: The initial focus of the US national system is to develop common criteria for MPAs, identify existing sites, and enable coordination at the regional level, not to plan new MPAs. However, the ensuing collaborative process to identify regional MPA priorities could result in identification of areas to be considered for MPA designation by existing programs and authorities. In facilitating this regional planning process, the role of the MPA Center will be to ensure that all interested agencies and stakeholders have appropriate opportunities for participation, and provide them with sound science to analyze priority natural and cultural resource areas and gaps in management and protection.

For more information:

Jonathan Kelsey, National MPA Center, 1305 East West Highway, N/ORM, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA. Tel: +1 301 563 7230; E-mail:

Dana Topousis, National MPA Center, 1305 East West Highway, N/ORM, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA. Tel: +1 301 563 7227; E-mail:

BOX: US advisory committee on MPAs offers recommendations

In June 2005, a federally appointed committee of experts on MPAs delivered its first set of recommendations on establishing and managing a national system of MPAs in the US. The report of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee (MPA-FAC) sets guiding principles, establishes goals and objectives, and articulates processes for assessing existing MPAs and proposing new sites for inclusion in the national system.

The MPA-FAC recommendations will be considered by the Departments of Commerce and the Interior. The departments will then work with the National Marine Protected Areas Center – the federal program responsible for overseeing development of the national system – to determine how to implement the recommendations. The committee report, Protecting America’s Marine Environment, is available online in PDF format at

BOX: Tightening the definition of “MPA”

Deciding what is, or is not, an MPA is not always easy. When the US federal government defined “marine protected area” in 2000 as part of an executive order to establish a national MPA system, the definition featured several words whose meanings in this context were unclear. The lack of clarity has challenged efforts to determine whether existing candidate sites for the national system qualify, in fact, as MPAs – a challenge similarly faced by MPA inventory projects worldwide (MPA News 6:8).

A federal advisory committee responsible for providing recommendations on development of the US national MPA system has offered its interpretation of the definition. For the purpose of demonstrating the difficulty in defining MPAs and how one expert body has addressed it, MPA News provides the committee’s interpretation of three key terms below:

US Executive Order 13158: A marine protected area is “…any area1 of the marine environment2 that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting3 protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.”

  1. Area: A marine site or region that has legally defined geographic boundaries. The site or region shall not include the entire US Exclusive Economic Zone or an entire state’s waters.
  2. Marine environment: Coastal and ocean waters and seafloors, including intertidal areas (to mean high tide level), estuaries (extending upstream to 0.5 ppt salinity), and the Great Lakes (to ordinary high water).
  3. Lasting: Enduring long enough to enhance the conservation, protection, or sustainability of natural or cultural marine resources. The minimum duration of “lasting” protection ranges from 10 years to indefinite, depending on the type and purpose of MPA. An “indefinite” duration of protection means that the intent at the time of designation is permanent protection. The distinction between “indefinite” and “permanent” acknowledges that MPA designation and level of protection may change for various reasons, including natural disasters that may destroy or alter resources, or changes in societal values.

(Adapted by MPA News from Protecting America’s Marine Environment: A Report of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee on Establishing and Managing a National System of Marine Protected Areas.)