MPAs and Recreation: Being a Special Place Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

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By Charles M. Wahle, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Blog Editor, NOAA MPA Center, charles.wahle [at] noaa.gov

Americans and our visitors are increasingly discovering the nation’s oceans as a place to play. This trend is hard to miss. Any visit to the coast or to travel and tourism websites reveals the diversity of ways we now recreate in the ocean [1]. The ongoing explosion of ocean recreation involves familiar uses pursued by ever-more people (e.g. kayaking, wildlife viewing, SCUBA), as well as the emergence of new activities not envisioned just a few years ago (e.g. stand-up paddle boards, kayak fishing, jet packs).

Not surprisingly, MPAs in particular are becoming natural magnets for ocean recreation. Increasingly, the special qualities of these places – thriving biological communities, accessible shorelines, watchable wildlife, intact natural habitats, clean water and beaches, and rich cultural heritage – attract us to MPAs for recreation, contemplation and spiritual renewal. And, as information about recreational opportunities in MPAs becomes more readily accessible on the web, we can expect to see recreational uses expand from large, historically popular areas like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary into smaller, more remote areas as well. 

Not all MPAs, however, were initially designed to manage the breadth and intensity of human uses seen today and emerging over the horizon. A recent informal poll of US MPA managers highlighted marked increases in recreational use, coupled with growing concerns over gaps in necessary scientific information, management tools and partnerships needed to ensure sustainable uses compatible with the sites’ conservation objectives. [2]

How we in the MPA community address the challenges and opportunities posed by expanding recreational use will shape the future of US MPAs and the ecosystems they protect. If proactively planned and adaptively managed, expanding recreational uses could be the best thing that ever happened to MPAs, engaging new constituencies, creating new stewards, attracting new funding sources, and creating socioeconomic benefits to coastal communities. Handled passively or through post hoc “crisis management”, unguided recreational uses of MPAs could eventually compromise the very qualities that draw us to enjoy, value and support these special places. [3]

The MPA world sometimes seems fraught with daunting challenges. The growth in recreational uses does not have to be one of them. The ocean community can save valuable time and resources in meeting this trend by borrowing tactics and lessons learned from our terrestrial protected areas counterparts to craft a practical framework that encourages appropriate recreational uses in MPAs, while ensuring their long-term sustainability [4]. Some useful initial steps to consider might include:

  • Understanding local patterns and implications of past, current and emerging recreational uses (e.g. drivers, ecosystem impacts, conflicts, thresholds, carrying capacities).
  • Evaluating the compatibility of those uses with site objectives, existing management measures and authorities, and adaptive approaches such as special use zones.
  • Highlighting the economic, social and cultural values of recreational uses to coastal communities, and the corresponding dependence of future recreational use on healthy, functioning ecosystems sustained by MPAs.
  • Forging new public-private partnerships among key recreational user groups and industries focused on building sustainable practices and support.
  • Engaging in national recreation initiatives, including America’s Great Outdoors, the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council, and the National Travel and Tourism Strategy, to highlight MPAs as a destination for sustainable recreation.

Getting ahead of this wave won’t happen overnight.  For example, ongoing efforts to update management plans for Biscayne National Park and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary – some of the most heavily used marine areas in the country – illustrate the breadth of the challenges inherent in adapting to growing recreational uses in MPAs.  But, building a management framework now that embraces and ensures sustainable recreation in MPAs will pay dividends – to MPAs and the people who value them - for generations to come.


[1] For a summary of categories of ocean uses, see the MPA Center’s “A Common Language of Ocean Uses” at http://marineprotectedareas.noaa.gov/pdf/helpful-resources/common_language_ocean_uses_11_14_2013_final.pdf

[2] Informal survey of MPA managers at the 2013 George Wright Society Conference.  The MPA Center is currently developing a more comprehensive assessment of the trends and implications of recreational use in US MPAs.

[3] NOAA’s Coastal Services Center offers a training course in visitor use management for MPAs; http://www.csc.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/training/visitor-use

[4] The MPA Federal Advisory Committee, which advised NOAA and DOI on MPA issues, is developing guidance on sustainable recreational uses in MPAs, due out later this year.

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