North America's Marine Protected Areas

North America's Marine Protected Areas

How marine protected areas help sustain communities and protect ocean life


6 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Health, Earth Science, Oceanography, Experiential Learning, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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Marine Protected Areas
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are places in the ocean where human activities are more strictly regulated than in surrounding waters—similar to the outdoor parks that we have on land. These four videos, produced by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation and a network of 24 aquarium and research centers, explore MPAs in North America and highlight the many ways MPAs are connected to coastal communities.

Worldwide there are over 4,600 Marine Protected Areas that help to preserve marine life and sustain coastal communities. But not all are the same—“MPA” is an umbrella term for many forms of aquatic conservation for both salt and fresh water areas. Common names for MPAs include, among others, “sanctuaries,” “parks,” and “reserves.” These different types of MPAs provide varying degrees of protection that ranges from “no-take” zones where all extractive activity is prohibited, to “multi-use” areas that allow sport and commercial fishing. MPAs also vary in size, from small local preserves to large “big ocean” areas. At 356,893 square kilometers (139,797 square miles), Hawaii’s “Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument” is larger than all the U.S. national parks combined!

Video 1: Protecting Marine Life
All Marine Protected Areas are dedicated to the conservation of marine life, but the forms of protection they provide and types of ecosystems they help preserve are as varied as their geographic locations. This video explores four MPAs along the coasts of North America that provide safe passage and abundant food to a variety of marine life:

  • Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary - Florida, United States:
    Protection keeps this coral reef healthy and allows fish populations to grow in size and number.
  • Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an - Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico:
    Along the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Sian Ka’an MPA helps preserve mangrove forests, where branches offer a resting place for migrating seabirds and submerged roots provide habitat for fish and crustaceans to feed and mature.
  • Channel Islands National Park - California, United States:
    Less than 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the coast of Los Angeles, the Channel Islands MPA protects underwater kelp forests where cool and warm waters mix to support a great diversity of endangered plants and animals.
  • Gully Marine Protected Area - Scotian Shelf, Canada:
    Gully MPA preserves underwater canyons along Canada’s Atlantic coast, providing safe habitat for rare deepwater marine life like cold-water corals.

Video 2: Discovering The Ocean’s Secrets
Marine Protected Areas are like living laboratories. By providing safe habitats for plants and animals, they demonstrate what ocean life is like with few human influences. Scientists study these conservation areas to better understand how human activities affect less protected areas of the ocean. This knowledge enables them to make more informed decisions about conserving the Earth’s marine resources. “Discovering The Ocean’s Secrets” shows scientists at work in four of North America’s MPAs.

  • Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area - Beaufort Sea, Canada:
    Researchers brave arctic conditions to identify critical habitat for and study the habits of beluga whales.
  • Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo - Gulf of California, Mexico:
    Off the coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, scientists track the size and health of fish populations and compare them with those in surrounding waters to better understand the effects of marine conservation techniques.
  • Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary - Gulf of Mexico:
    In the Gulf of Mexico researchers use Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to explore sea caves where organisms live without sunlight.
  • Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument - Hawaii, United States:
    Northwest of Hawaii, scientists compare conditions in North America’s largest MPA to other offshore marine habitats in the Pacific Ocean where plants and animals are not protected.

Video 3: Connecting Us to Nature
The majority of Marine Protected Areas allow human use and are recreational destinations for millions of people every year. These “multi-use” MPAs, which make up 95% of the world’s protected ocean areas, allow visitors to explore and enjoy nature. However, visitors must also treat these multi-use areas with care and respect to maintain their conservational value. This video explores recreational opportunities in four MPAs around Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore - North Carolina, United States:
    Tourists and locals alike visit the beaches of this coastal MPA for their rich cultural and biological offerings.
  • Parque Nacional Costal Occidental de Isla Mujeres, Reserva de la Biosfera Bahia de los Angeles - Cancun, Mexico:
    Mexico’s MPAs are popular destinations for snorkelers, who enjoy the variety of underwater plants and animals. Park regulations ensure swimmers do not harm the marine life.
  • Pacific Rim National Park Reserve - Vancouver Island, Canada:
    Protected waters in the Pacific Northwest draw kayakers and surfers year round, who brave the cold water to enjoy the dramatic scenery and strong surf.
  • Fathom Five National Marine Park, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve - Lake Huron, Canada:
    Divers travel to the great lakes to explore marine ecosystems supported by shallow-water shipwrecks.

Video 4: Sustaining Communities
While billions of people worldwide rely on the ocean for food and work, overfishing is drastically reducing the ocean’s fishing stock. Scientists estimate that humans have removed as much as 90% of large predatory fish like shark, swordfish and cod. By encouraging conservation and sustainable fishing practices, Marine Protected Areas reduce overfishing and preserve fragile aquatic populations. This protection helps to sustain coastal economies and the livelihoods of their residents.

  • Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge - Mississippi, United States:
    Coastal wetland MPAs in the Gulf of Mexico protect marine nursery grounds that provide millions of dollars of sustainably caught shrimp and fish each year.
  • Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an, Reserva de la Biosfera Banco Chinchorro - Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico:
    MPAs on Mexico’s east coast support fishing cooperatives that market sustainably caught lobsters.
  • Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area - Moresby Island, Canada:
    Kelp forests and herring protected by MPAs along Canada’s west coast help to sustain the economic livelihood of First Nation communities.
  • Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary - Massachusetts, United States:
    MPAs along the northeastern coast of North America help protect the whales that draw tourists from all over the world.

Fast Fact

  • Marine Protected Areas can provide relief from stressors like overfishing and habitat destruction. But just as fish move freely in the ocean, so does pollution. Invisible undersea currents carry pollutants thousands of miles, often within the borders of otherwise protected MPAs.

Fast Fact

  • In 1972, exactly 100 years after Yellowstone was designated as the first national park on American soil, Congress authorized the establishment of protected areas in the ocean. Today, 14 coastal protection areas in the U.S. contain over 1,700 individually managed areas.

Fast Fact

  • Roughly 41% of all U.S. watersincluding lakes, rivers, and oceansare protected by some form of MPA. However, only 3% of those MPAs are designated "no-take zones." The vast majority are "multiple-use" and allow a variety of recreational and commercial uses within their boundaries.

Fast Fact

  • About 1.6% of ocean worldwide is protected in MPAs. Only 0.2% of those protected areas are "no-take" zones.

Fast Fact

  • MPAs vary greatly in size. Over 95% of protected water in the U.S. is located in "Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument," which encompases 356,893 square kilometers (139,797 square miles) off the northwestern coast of Hawaii. However, the vast majority of MPAs are much smaller than PapahnaumokukeaOhio's "North Pond State Nature Preserve" is the smallest at 17 square meters (183 square feet).
Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Marshall Daly, National Geographic Society
Mary Ford, National Geographic Society
Jessica Shea, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Society
Expert Reviewers
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Valerie Craig, National Geographic Ocean Initiative, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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