Marine Protected Areas in Washington: Recommendations of the Marine Protected Areas Work Group to the Washington State Legislature
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Marine Protected Areas in Washington: Recommendations of the Marine Protected Areas Work Group to the Washington State Legislature

Category: Habitat - Marine

Date Published: December 2009

Number of Pages: 118

Author(s): F. Brie Van Cleve, Greg Bargmann, Michele Culver, The MPA Work Group


Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are one management tool that may be used to protect and conserve fragile or unique habitats, species and culturally historic sites, enhance fisheries abundance and biodiversity, and provide recreational and educational opportunities while potentially assisting ecosystem-based management. Washington State hosts a variety of MPAs with ranging degrees of protection established for diverse purposes by several different entities. Most of the designations occurred before the term MPA was put into use and these sites are known by a variety of terms including aquatic reserves, marine preserves, conservation areas, etc. The resulting patchwork of protection is confusing to marine resource regulators and users, makes evaluation of success difficult, may create conservation gaps or overlaps and, in some cases, may be insufficient to protect marine ecosystems.

Washington is home to 127 MPAs managed by eleven federal, state, and local agencies. These sites occur in Puget Sound and on the coast and cover approximately 644,000 acres and over six million feet of shoreline. The median size of an MPA in the state is slightly over 23 acres, although the size ranges from less than one acre to over 300,000 acres. The first MPA in the state was created in 1907 but most MPAs were established during the 1960s. The greater San Juan Island area (San Juan archipelago) holds the most MPAs. Meanwhile the northern portion of the Washington coast contains the fewest MPAs in number, yet the North Coast is home to the state’s single largest MPA, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Between 1 to 5% of the Puget Sound and coastal region (excluding the greater San-Juan Island area and North Olympic Coast) is covered by an MPA. Almost all MPAs restrict harvest or other impacts to marine resources to some degree.

The MPA Work Group was established by the Washington State Legislature in 2008 and tasked to inventory MPAs in Washington’s state waters, assess current MPA management, and provide a series of recommendations to the Legislature on how to improve the use and effectiveness of MPAs in the future. The MPA Work Group was chaired by WDFW and populated with governmental representatives, including tribal representatives, and agencies that manage MPAs in Washington’s state waters. Treaty tribes were invited to participate because they have co-management authority over the treaty-reserved fishery resources within their usual and accustomed fishing grounds. Treaty tribes also have a management interest in the habitats required to sustain their treaty-reserved harvest. The MPA Work Group oversaw the compilation of an inventory of Washington MPAs between December 2008 and October 2009 while participating in a series of meetings used to collect information about varying aspects of MPAs.

Through this process, the MPA Work Group noted the various degrees of protection afforded by MPAs in the inventory. The group agreed that performance evaluation of existing MPAs was needed to determine whether existing MPA authorities provided adequate ecosystem protection or whether agencies were implementing existing authorities effectively and managing MPAs efficiently. Once performance of the current suite of MPAs was assessed, the MPA inventory and additional supportin

The group agreed that networks of MPAs are a potentially valuable tool to achieve ecosystem-based management and concluded that MPAs sited and designed separately and individually rarely achieve ecosystem-based management principles. The group noted that marine spatial planning, for which there is strengthening national interest, is another tool to inform ecosystem-based management. In a comprehensive planning process, areas for marine conservation, or MPAs, could be recommended and established. The group agreed that principles and practices associated with science based MPA establishment criteria and management could be applied during marine spatial planning efforts. The MPA Work Group found that Marine Stewardship Areas (MSAs) offer both non-regulatory and regulatory tools to involve local government, nongovernmental organizations and communities in creating a framework for ecosystem-based management that can add value to individual MPAs within their borders.

Murray and Ferguson (1998) noted that a variety of MPAs had been created in Puget Sound without an overarching policy, design, or coordination mechanism among managing agencies. Their results document uncoordinated MPA objectives, site selection criteria, design, financing, designation, management, and monitoring and evaluation. The Work Group’s findings a decade later largely agree with Murray and Ferguson’s documented need for coordination and consistency among MPAs and MPA managers. The MPA Work Group noted that gauging the success of MPAs as a management strategy is dependent on monitoring how well MPAs achieve their management goals and objectives; however, the majority of agencies focus current monitoring activities on the tracking and reporting of marine resource status and not MPA effectiveness. Only WDFW and to a limited extent DNR and OCNMS conduct some MPA effectiveness monitoring.

The following terms are used to describe MPAs included in the inventory: aquatic reserve, refuge, marine preserve, conservation area, park, research reserve, recreation area, and sanctuary. The MPA Work group noted that some terms adequately describe the primary management objective of the MPA, such as “recreation area”, while others, such as “sanctuary”, do not adequately convey the multitude of management objectives. Further, some terms falsely suggest more protection than others (e.g. WDFW’s “marine preserves” are counterintuitively less protective than WDFW’s “conservation areas”). The group agreed that the current terminology used to describe various types of MPAs complicates and even frustrates efforts to improve coordination and consistency among MPAs and MPA managers. Lack of consistent terms and use of counterintuitive terms may convey misinformation to the public and stakeholder groups if terminology promotes incorrect assumptions regarding protection levels.

Anticipating a strong likelihood that new MPAs will be proposed in the future, either independently or as part of large-scale marine spatial planning efforts, the group identified the need for a Puget Sound and coast-wide coordinating entity to oversee the implementation of the recommendations in this report, review new MPA proposals, convene MPA managers, and lead coordination efforts. Members of the MPA Work Group determined that its structure and charge were effective and useful. The group proposed continuance of an MPA Work Group to resolve and review MPA-related issues as they arise.

Based on these findings, the MPA Work Group developed 17 recommendations for improving the use of MPAs as a management tool (Appendix 6). Five recommendations have the most relevance to the Legislature. These recommendations are:

  • Promote coordination between tribes, state and federal agencies, and local jurisdictions in Puget Sound and on the coast relative to existing MPAs and future MPA planning efforts with dedicated support for coordination.
  • Provide adequate funding source for MPA designation, management and monitoring.
  • Promote consistent use of MPA-related terms among state MPAs and between state and federal MPAs where possible. Where necessary, change state laws and regulations to reflect a consistent set of terms across multiple agencies.
  • Conduct a Puget Sound and coast-wide marine conservation needs assessment and gap analysis of existing MPAs and provide recommendations for action.
  • Identify and monitor reference sites in order to evaluate MPA effectiveness.

Suggested Citation:
Van Cleve, FB, G Bargmann, M Culver, and the MPA Work Group. Marine Protected Areas in Washington: Recommendations of the Marine Protected Areas Work Group to the Washington State Legislature. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, WA.