MPA Perspective: Climate Change and the U.S. National System of MPAs - Why Places Are Important

MPA News

Editor's note: Joseph Uravitch is director of the U.S. National Marine Protected Areas Center. The MPA Center is a division of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service.

By Joseph A. Uravitch

After seven years of public and agency engagement, information gathering and analysis, and system design, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Protected Areas Center (MPA Center) is moving forward to establish the initial U.S. National System of Marine Protected Areas (National System) by late 2008. The Revised Draft Framework for Developing the National System of Marine Protected Areas will be available soon for public comment. The Final Framework is planned for publication this summer. Underpinning the National System are the Framework's conservation goals and objectives, developed with the advice of the MPA Federal Advisory Committee. These are intended to help guide the protection, preservation and restoration of the nation's natural heritage, cultural heritage, and sustainable production of marine resources. This initial National System will be based on the participation of existing federal MPAs and voluntary participation by state, territorial, and tribal MPAs, followed over time by regional gap analyses to determine if additional areas should be designated as MPAs.

The past several years also have seen a growing consensus about the reality of climate change. Although much is unknown, such as the rate of change, or specificity about intensity and timing of effects, reports such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent publication on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability* note that "observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases." Expected changes, among others noted, are sea level rise, damage to corals and coastal wetlands, ocean acidification, and a "high confidence" in "shifts in the ranges and changes in algal, plankton, and fish abundance in high latitude oceans."

Given these observable and predicted changes, do these affect the establishment of the U.S. National System, and can the National System assist in adaptation to such change? I believe the answer is "yes" in both instances. The National System also can be an important contributor to helping NOAA achieve its climate goal, to "understand and describe climate variability and change to enhance society's ability to plan and respond." Perhaps the most obvious and direct linkage is to the National System Framework's proposed near-term objective of conserving "important geological and persistent oceanographic features." I believe this is a critical objective to address because:

  • We know that the oceans are changing;
  • We know sea levels are rising, even if we're unsure of the rate and the ultimate increase;
  • We know that species compositions and ecosystems are changing, and likely to continue to change for the foreseeable future;
  • We know that there is a question about the long-term persistence of some oceanographic features, such as specific upwellings and currents;
  • We know that while submerged features may change physically at geological time scales, they rarely change on the human timescale on which we plan;
  • We know that the depth of submergence of these geologic features will change, and some coastal lands will become submerged lands; and, most importantly,
  • We know that submerged geologic features such as reefs, hard bottoms, canyons, seamounts, etc., are often areas of high biological diversity, and sometimes, endemism, as studies of places such as New Zealand seamounts has shown.

One need only look at existing MPAs to see that most of them are built around such features. U.S. examples include National Marine Sanctuaries such as Stellwagen Bank and Cordell Bank; Monterey Bay and its canyon; the reefs of the Florida Keys; the hard bottoms of Grays Reef; the salt domes of Flower Garden Banks; the state and federal MPA complex around the Channel Islands (which includes a National Park, a National Marine Sanctuary, Federal Fisheries Management Zones, and California State Marine Reserves and Marine Conservation Areas); and the extensive NOAA Fisheries trawl closures established in the Gulf of Alaska to protect deep, cold water corals, to name just a few.

We can logically assume that ecosystems and species assemblages in these particular locations will change as species move poleward or die off. But we can also reasonably assume that the geologic features upon which these MPAs were established are the most likely places on which and around which new species assemblages and ecosystems will form over time. We may not know what these assemblages and ecosystems will look like, but we probably know where they will exist.

Knowing this, we move forward practically in establishing the National System. We will use this opportunity to work with MPA and marine resource management and research programs to better understand existing resources of these key places (both existing and potential sites); establish monitoring capabilities to understand change over time; and help our MPAs practice adaptive management to ensure that our nation and our neighbors will have vibrant, resilient ecosystems in the future.

* IPCC: Summary for Policy Makers. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, UK, 7-22.

For more information

Joseph Uravitch, National Marine Protected Areas Center, 1305 East West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3281, U.S. Tel: +1 301 563 1195; E-mail: joseph.uravitch [at]

BOX: Seabirds as surrogates for siting MPAs

The above essay by Joseph Uravitch recommends the use of geologic features as surrogates for biodiversity in siting MPAs. Australian researchers Jane Harris and Eric Woehler suggest another possible surrogate that could be particularly useful for siting MPAs on the open ocean: seabirds. In a paper published last year in Antarctic Science (Vol. 19, No.2, pp. 189-194), Harris and Woehler analyzed 20 years of seabird-sighting data in the Southern Ocean to identify several high-priority areas for conservation in the region.

"Seabirds are top-order predators," says Woehler. "There are numerous studies throughout the world's oceans that have demonstrated seabird distributions at sea reflect the distribution, abundance, and availability of their prey. Our study demonstrated that high densities of seabirds and/or seabird species diversity were observable in specific areas over decadal scales."

Woehler acknowledges that climate change could conceivably cause prey and predator species to migrate over the course of coming decades, thus shifting the priority areas for conservation. In that case, he says, the study could be repeated in, say, 50 years' time. "If the at-sea distributions of seabirds change in response to rising sea-surface temperatures, the same methodology could be re-applied to identify candidate MPAs," he says.

For a copy of the paper "A New Approach to Selecting Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean", e-mail Eric Woehler at eric_woe [at]

Add new comment

Sign-in with your OpenChannels Member Account and sign-up for email notifications of news. Simply visit any news post and click the "Subscribe to updates of new content of this type" link just above the comments section.