In July, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a national ocean policy for the US ( The policy launches a process of coastal and marine spatial planning for the nation, carried out on a phased basis across nine regions (MEAM 4:1).

Marine protected areas are often viewed as examples of marine spatial planning on a limited geographic scale. MEAM spoke with Joe Uravitch, director of the US National Marine Protected Areas Center, about the implications of the new US ocean policy for the nation's MPAs.

MEAM: In what ways will existing MPAs in the US be affected by the new national ocean policy?

Joe Uravitch: The new national ocean policy has the potential to benefit existing MPAs significantly since it places them in a larger, comprehensive, proactive planning context that did not exist in the past. Lines of authority and responsibility in the oceans often have been fragmented, unclear, and uncoordinated. Consultations with MPA managers often took place only when a major action potentially affecting MPA resources was proposed – often way into the sectoral use planning process. Under the new policy of using existing authority to strengthen ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes stewardship, MPAs are part of the process and their concerns can be addressed earlier as an integral part of a larger picture. This should lead to better conservation decisions.

MEAM: Could lessons learned from the planning of MPAs be useful in the nation's forthcoming coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP) effort?

Uravitch: I believe previous experience in developing MPAs and updating MPA management plans can provide valuable lessons for the CMSP process. The key to success is to ensure the opportunity for active involvement by as many interested parties as are willing to be involved and a clear understanding of the desired outcome of the planning process. Regarding what can be learned from MPA processes, while the scales may differ, there are many similarities in process, engagement, use of scientific information, and tools, such as GIS applications that apply across scales. One major difficulty may come in the translation of a process focused on a targeted specific task: i.e., the development or updating of an MPA where there is a specific intended outcome versus the CMSP process which will be "completed" with a more generalized set of ends. The key will be to define what those ends are.

MEAM: Do you anticipate the CMSP process could result in designation of new MPAs?

Uravitch: As I understand this work in progress, the CMSP process does not have the authority to legally designate specific places for conservation, resource extraction, resource use, or other purposes. However, it seems likely that the more comprehensive planning and analysis process provided by CMSP will result in the identification of important places requiring protection, either through MPAs or some other management tool.

For more information:
Joe Uravitch
, National MPA Center, Silver Spring, Maryland, US. E-mail:

BOX: Comparing two ocean policy approaches: The new US ocean policy and President Bush's Ocean Action Plan

When President Obama instituted a national ocean policy for the US this year, his administration described it as the first comprehensive, integrated policy for stewardship of the country's coasts and oceans. However, it is not the first presidential initiative to try to coordinate US ocean policy.

In December 2004, former President George W. Bush instituted an Ocean Action Plan, consisting of 88 action items that responded to recommendations from a national commission on ocean policy. The action items were diverse, pertaining to fisheries, MPAs, invasive species, watershed management, marine transportation, research, and more. The first item on the list was the creation of a Cabinet-level committee on ocean policy to coordinate the activities of federal departments on ocean-related matters. In 2008 at the end of his second and final term in office, President Bush announced that 87 of the 88 action items had been achieved (all except Congressional approval of the UN Law of the Sea Treaty).

The respective efforts of Presidents Bush and Obama offer a contrast in how an ocean policy can be crafted. President Bush said his Ocean Action Plan was about "setting clear goals and meeting those goals," and his policy amounted to the sum of its discrete parts (e.g., "Establish mandatory ballast water management program", "Promote international sea turtle conservation"). In comparison the Obama policy aims to provide an overarching framework within which future planning of US ocean use and conservation may occur.

Bush Ocean Action Plan:

Obama Executive Order, establishing the new national ocean policy: