3 February 2017 - Unlike protected lands, marine protected areas can’t be staked with signposts — and, without clear boundaries, mariners can easily drift into areas where they don’t belong. But there might be a technological fix for that dilemma.
When a large swath of the Ross Sea in Antarctica earned marine protected area (MPA) status late last year, becoming the world’s largest MPA, it was hailed as an ocean conservation victory. Officially designating the territory as protected may only be the beginning of protecting it though.
Unlike protected lands, these waters can’t be staked with signposts — and, without clear boundaries, mariners can easily drift into areas where they don’t belong. Given that they’re often far from lines of sight, overseeing these ocean havens is also challenging.
To improve awareness and management of these special places, a team of technology experts, mapping specialists, and lawyers partnered with private enterprises and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make it easier and more affordable for MPAs to live up to their names.
Worldwide, there are more than 13,500 MPAs, according to the Marine Conservation Institute, a non-profit organization based in Seattle. These MPAs are created for many reasons, from preserving historical shipwrecks and cultural sites to conserving biodiversity and marine species. While most of these protected areas are off limits to commercial fisheries, they are often open to recreational or subsistence fishing and public access.
“In most cases, we want people to enjoy these amazing places,” says Lauren Wenzel, director of the NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center based in Washington, D.C. “That’s how you build support for ocean protection.”
With restrictions that vary by location, it can be difficult for mariners to know what kinds of regulations apply in any given ocean space, or even to be aware that they have entered into a protected area.
Although navigation charts may provide details on some protected area boundaries, they are primarily intended for safety: to keep vessels away from reefs, rocks, and hidden shoals. Even if MPAs and their restrictions could be added to these maps, there wouldn’t be enough room for it all.
“Just one spot in the sea could be overseen by a number of different agencies, for varying purposes, each with their own corresponding regulations,” says Mimi D’lorio, data manager for the NOAA’s MPA Center. “This can make it hard to communicate these regulations to the public in a clear and consistent way.”