Dear EarthTalk: I heard the term “underwater wilderness” recently. What does it refer to?
— Melissa Cook, via e-mail
“Underwater wilderness” is a term sometimes used to describe so-called Marine Reserves, a type of Marine Protected Area (MPA) where offshore drilling and mining are not allowed and fishing is either heavily restricted or banned altogether. Marine Reserves, which occur in both tropical and temperate waters, typically have large amounts of biodiversity and are important to protect because they play a key role in rebuilding depleted fish populations and revitalizing wider ocean ecosystems.
“Research shows that protected ocean areas harbor more fish, bigger fish, healthier habitat and more diverse life than unprotected areas,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “And these safe havens have a spillover effect, as abundant marine life begins to populate waters beyond the borders of the reserve.” NRDC adds that Marine Reserves will become even more important as the ocean is stressed by both climate change and ocean acidification, an ongoing lowering of the ph of the seas caused by absorption of carbon dioxide emissions.
While the actual area covered by Marine Reserves is small, their contribution to marine biodiversity is important. The U.S.’s 223 Marine Reserves make up just 3.1 percent of its waters and only eight percent of the world’s MPAs. Some 95 percent of U.S. Marine Reserves are located in the 140,000 square mile Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii—established in 2006 by President George W. Bush—with the rest spread out across many smaller ocean, estuarine and Great Lakes waters.
“Although rare, no take areas, also called marine reserves, are sometimes used to protect spawning or nursery grounds, or to protect ecologically important deep-water habitats,” reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which administers the U.S. National Marine Protected Areas program. “Some are used as research and monitoring zones to serve as a baseline that allows comparisons by managers and scientists of undisturbed control areas to those impacted by human activities.”
Currently 54 Marine Reserves are federally managed as part of national park, national wildlife refuge or national marine sanctuary systems. Another 141 are managed by state agencies, 19 are managed at the territorial level, and nine are managed by public/private partnerships. NOAA reports that efforts to incorporate Marine Reserves into existing coastal and ocean management plans are occurring in many states, including in the Florida Keys, where the Tortugas Ecological Reserve prohibits the taking of marine life and prohibits vessel discharges, and in California’s Channel Islands and along parts of the Oregon coast, where Marine Reserve designations have been effective in bringing back fish stocks.
Marine Reserve designation may be a U.S. term, but Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. all have their own form of Marine Reserves, and countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe are working to establish similarly protections. Meanwhile, the international environmental group Greenpeace wants to establish marine reserves in international waters not subject to any one country’s rules and regulations.