No-take Reserves a No-No for States

Sea otter. Photograph courtesy of Kip Evans.

By Lance Morgan, President, Marine Conservation Institute

Of the many kinds of marine protected areas (MPAs), no-take reserves are the ones that provide the strongest protection to marine life.  No-take reserves safeguard life within them—seaweeds, dolphins, sea turtles, fishes, corals—from fishing, which has long been the most important human impact on the sea. No-take reserves also protect against other extractive uses, such as oil & gas drilling.

No-take marine reserves work better than less-protected areas because when people don’t kill things, those things tend to make more of themselves.  Areas that don’t protect against all extractive uses can be useful, but have fewer conservation benefits. Divers, scientists and fishermen start seeing changes within just a few years.  Dozens of scientific studies show increases in diversity, in the sizes of individuals and the overall abundance of animals in no-take reserves in the years following full protection.  And reserves also replenish fish and invertebrate populations outside their boundaries – a good outcome for both fish and fishermen.

Marine biologists now report that adult yellow tangs, a Hawaiian fish species important for the aquarium trade, send their young to grow up in areas as far as 114 miles away.  Rather than harming commercial and recreational fisheries, as some had feared when Tortugas Ecological Reserve in Florida was established in 2001, the region’s fisheries have remained viable and some have thrived.  As scientists pay more attention to marine reserves, we will likely discover more benefits.

So if no-take marine reserves are showing results and hold such promise for helping marine ecosystems recover, it seems fair to ask how well different states are doing to implement this management measure.

SeaStatesThat is the focus of SeaStates 2013, the first-ever rigorous scientific analysis of no-take marine reserves, released jointly with Mission Blue.  The scientists of the Marine Conservation Institute compiled all the data on state waters and no-take marine reserves (from MPAtlas and the US National MPA Center) and ranked the states by the percentage of their waters protected at this highest level of conservation.

The results show good progress by Hawaii (22.9%), California (8.7%) and US Virgin Islands (5.7%), very modest progress by several others (~1% or less: Florida, Puerto Rico, Oregon, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Washington, American Samoa, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maine), and disappointingly 15 states with no (zero) protection of their state waters.  The full report is available at and an update will be available next year to see what progress states have made in protecting their waters for the benefit of all citizens, now and into the future.

Changing Planet

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