3 February 2017 - When a large swath of the Ross Sea in Antarctica earned marine protected area (MPA) status [read more] late last year, becoming the world’s largest MPA, it was hailed as an ocean conservation victory. Officially designating the territory as protected may only be the beginning of protecting it though.
Unlike protected lands, these waters can’t be staked with signposts — and, without clear boundaries, mariners can easily drift into areas where they don’t belong. Given that they’re often far from lines of sight, overseeing these ocean havens is also challenging.
To improve awareness and management of these special places, a team of technology experts, mapping specialists, and lawyers partnered with private enterprises and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make it easier and more affordable for MPAs to live up to their names.
Worldwide, there are more than 13,500 MPAs, according to the Marine Conservation Institute, a non-profit organization based in Seattle. These MPAs are created for many reasons, from preserving historical shipwrecks and cultural sites to conserving biodiversity and marine species. While most of these protected areas are off limits to commercial fisheries, they are often open to recreational or subsistence fishing and public access.
“In most cases, we want people to enjoy these amazing places,” says Lauren Wenzel, director of the NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center based in Washington, D.C. “That’s how you build support for ocean protection.”
With restrictions that vary by location, it can be difficult for mariners to know what kinds of regulations apply in any given ocean space, or even to be aware that they have entered into a protected area.
Although navigation charts may provide details on some protected area boundaries, they are primarily intended for safety: to keep vessels away from reefs, rocks, and hidden shoals. Even if MPAs and their restrictions could be added to these maps, there wouldn’t be enough room for it all.
“Just one spot in the sea could be overseen by a number of different agencies, for varying purposes, each with their own corresponding regulations,” says Mimi D’lorio, data manager for the NOAA’s MPA Center. “This can make it hard to communicate these regulations to the public in a clear and consistent way.”
With the goal of bringing all the MPAs into one data set — and making it accessible from a boat — experts in software design, coastal law, and geography formed a team. Led by Virgil Zetterlind, manager of the California-based non-profit Protected Seas, the group first concentrated on mapping the United States’ coastal areas.
“It wasn’t like we could go looking in one comprehensive source,” says Zetterlind of the almost two-year task. Most of Protected Seas’ information was gleaned with guidance from the NOAA and other agencies. About one-third of the time, the team discovered MPAs had been described in regulations by latitude and longitude — but never digitally mapped.
Once the team translated the key restrictions and allowances into plain language, they created layered maps so boaters could pinpoint their location with regard to MPAs. These maps have been integrated into electronic charting software offered by Navionics, an international chart provider based in Italy. Now, for example, a boat captain with an iPad can turn on the MPA layer and tap the map to see whether their vessel is in a restricted area. For more detailed information about allowed activities, links to official sources are sited within the maps. Boaters without electronic charts can freely view the MPA maps from a mobile-friendly public website, and the charts will eventually be available for smartphones and tablets.
Every possible restriction isn’t listed on these maps. As D’lorio points out, MPAs may be managed for many things, including oil and gas extraction, shipping traffic, wind farms, cultural sites, historic shipwrecks, ecosystems, biodiversity, or human recreation. The Protected Seas database focuses on the extraction of fish and other living resources, “the stuff you can eat,” she notes.