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Executive Summary

The creation of marine reserves provides one of the most important and effective ways to protect the ocean. Like national parks and wilderness areas, marine reserves are areas where nothing can be taken out and only recreational and research activities are permitted. Marine reserves prohibit destructive activities like dredging and oil exploration, and they safeguard marine wildlife by excluding fishing. The result is a more diverse underwater realm, relative to exploited areas, with more large fish and pristine habitat. Hundreds of scientific articles have shown the benefits of marine reserves and other protected areas around the world. This report not only discusses the international scientific evidence in favor of reserves, it also presents success stories in the United States, the legal framework that governs reserve management, and general guidelines for creating new marine protected areas.

Five areas in the U.S. are highlighted, including:

  • A dive park in Washington's Puget Sound where there are almost ten times more fish than in the neighboring waters open to fishing.
  • Hawaii's Hanuama Bay, where protection means more corals, more fish, and more sightings of rare species that draw thousands of visitors each year.
  • A controversial set of closed fishing areas in the Gulf of Maine that has led to dramatic increases in scallop harvests and the beginning of recovery for depleted groundfish.
  • A reserve created by the Kennedy Space Center where record-sized fish are caught just outside the protected area.
  • Newly protected spawning grounds in Alaskan waters thick with fish.

Drawing on the extensive research on marine reserves, this report offers general guidelines for creating and managing reserves. The designation of marine reserves should involve careful consideration of the ecology of an area, as well as input from local residents. Successful reserves need sound enforcement, community support, and scientific monitoring. Reserves are not a panacea for all the problems facing the ocean, and they need to be complemented by sound fisheries management outside the reserve as well as controls on water quality. However, the simple step of placing part of the ocean off limits can reap tremendous benefits. Creating a reserve is one of the few actions that actually increases the biomass in the ocean rather than simply minimizes how much is removed. By safeguarding ocean wilderness now, we save for a healthier ocean in the future.

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