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by Kelly Secrest June 10, 2020 8 min read

Our oceans are being threatened now more than ever.  You and everyone you know are responsible for the overall survival of the Earth, its oceans, and its resources.  Every action you take in your daily life is impacting ecosystems around the world.  One major concern is overfishing, and we have a solution: marine protected areas!

You may wonder why you should care?  The consequences of overfishing will have a direct impact on you and future generations, so reading this blog will help you understand some of the critical challenges that our aquatic ecosystems face and help learn about possible solutions.
First, let’s define overfishing.  Simply put, overfishing is catching fish from oceans, seas, or estuaries at rates higher than the fish stocks can replenish themselves. Overfishing is a primary concern that threatens marine areas by causing the loss of billions of fish and killing sea turtles and cetaceans. These animals are essential to sustaining life on the planet.  Fish are probably a part of your diet (and if not, they are for many people you know) and provide necessary nutrients and micronutrients as they are a “primary source of food for one billion people.”  Without fish, global food security would be threatened.  The creation and maintenance of marine protected areas represent an excellent answer to overfishing.


What exactly are marine protected areas?

I am sure you wonder why these areas are a solution.  But, before going into why marine protected areas are a great solution, it is important to understand what they are.  A marine protected area is part of the sea that offers greater protection than the surrounding waters for biodiversity conservation or the management of fisheries.  Typically, these areas are clearly designated and are set aside for long term conservation. They are dedicated to the protection of biodiversity and natural resources.  Marine protected areas can conserve all levels of diversity in the marine environment.  In fact, it has been said that they are the most effective tool in achieving high aquatic biodiversity.  

You may have heard of some of the largest marine protected areas or even visited them.  Northeast Greenland is the largest, and right behind it is the Great Barrier Reef. The Gili Shark Conservation program in Indonesia points out the protected area of the Great Barrier Reef “results in higher ecotourism value, including scuba diving and snorkeling. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is estimating to contribute $1.4 billion per year to the Australian economy.” Traveling to visit these reefs and the many other protected parks and areas is an excellent way to enjoy the natural environment and show support safely.  Many other areas around the world offer protection, including national parks in Indonesia, Venezuela, Japan, Malaysia, and many other countries.

A fun fact is that in 1975, the first marine protected area was established under the National Marine Sanctuary Act.  The USS Monitor was the first iron-hulled steam-powered warship built during the American Civil War and went down in a storm off of Cape Hatteras in 1862.  The USS Monitor wreck made history again when it was nominated to be the first protected marine sanctuary.  As Floridians, it is also interesting that in 1987, Florida began developing a statewide system of underwater parks featuring shipwrecks and other historic sites (Marine Science Today).  Some areas you might have heard of are the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Dry Tortugas National Park, and the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. 

You might be confused about what exactly falls under the category of a marine protected area (MPA).  This is because there are many different versions, and they come in various forms and levels of protection.  They can include ocean and marine sanctuaries, marine and ocean parks, locally managed marines, marine reserves, wildlife refuges, and no-take zones (World Wildlife Fund).  Most marine protected areas fall under four different categories.  Minimally protected MPAs may allow extraction or lack the proper active enforcement.  Lightly protected MPAs prohibit some extraction activities but still allow commercial fishing.  Highly protected MPAs prohibit all industrial extractive activity as well as commercial fishing and seabed mining.  However, they permit recreational fishing.  Fully protected MPAs prohibit all extraction activities and commercial fishing.  Highly and fully protected MPAs have been proven to guard and restore endangered species along with the biodiversity of those ecosystems, which increases the productivity, protection, and health of the ecosystem.

Why do we need marine protected areas?

If you haven’t previously been made aware, overfishing is a serious environmental issue that can be decreased by creating more marine protected areas.  Due to modern technology, the usage and access to marine environments have drastically increased.  This has caused a rise in fishing, tourism, aquaculture, and the developments of medicine from the marine areas.  Marine protected areas are essential in saving the environment and endangered species that would otherwise be threatened, depleted, or destroyed by human usage.

Did you know that at the moment, less than two percent of the world's oceans are being protected in marine protected areas, and only one percent are protected from fishing?  This percentage demonstrates a stark contrast when compared to 15% of the world's land that is protected.  This is shocking because over 70% of our Earth is covered with water, as opposed to the 29% covered with land.  It is in everyone’s best interest to work toward protecting more of our oceans, as they are just as important as the land we protect.

These protected areas can also be an excellent tool in rebuilding fish stocks. When a fish is in a marine protected area, it has the opportunity to grow larger than it otherwise would have.  This is called the “spillover effect.”  The result is larger fish and more offspring, and this surplus will eventually leave the boundaries of the marine protected area and help to replenish the fisheries around it.  Many families depend on the fish in their area to make a living and provide for their families.  Fishermen will be able to increase the size of their catch and quantity of fish surrounding these areas.  MPAs also give scientists the capability to research plant and marine life to analyze what happens without human interference.  This is pretty cool because scientists are able to analyze the differences that occur in places that are not crowded with human activity.

What can be done to help protect and increase the amount of marine protected areas?

Educating yourself on the importance and value of marine protected areas and supporting and promoting a more sustainable future are great ways to contribute and help with this issue.  Many organizations are helping to raise awareness about marine protected areas if you wanted to get involved or read even further into these ecological issues.  The National System of Marine Protected Areas aims to enhance the network that protects and conserves the nation’s marine species and represents its diverse ecosystems.  Another important organization is the World Wildlife Fund, the leading charity in wildlife conservation.  There are many ways to get involved in fundraising and making a difference through their organization.

You can do your part while going about your daily lifestyle as well.  Every time you go to the grocery store, you can make sure that the fish and sushi that you are buying are sustainable.  There are many guides posted online to help guide consumers, such as the ones on Seafood Watch.  You can also skip the shrimp, tuna, and salmon and try to venture out to eat something different.  There are many other species such as clams, mussels, oysters, trout, and black cod (sablefish).  You can also glance at the labels of the foods you are buying to make sure they have eco-certifications.  These certifications mean that the seafood producer acts sustainably and has an eco-friendly fishery.  A certification can look something like this:

Photography Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Every person needs to do their part in the fight for the establishment of more marine protected areas.  Adding more of these areas can strengthen the health of the ecosystems and increase the networks of such regions.  It may come as a shock, but many marine protected areas are considered “paper parks.”  This means that there is a lack of protection over these areas, and the legislation is undermined.  In a study discussed by the World Resources Institute, 383 sites were evaluated for management effectiveness, and less than a third of the areas were actually achieving their protection goals.  This number is way too low, and we need to work together to improve the legitimacy of these areas.   In the future, more no-catch zones must be established to allow the populations of fish, as well as their delicate ecosystems, to replenish and recover.  Sustainable fishing guarantees that future generations will be able to fish in oceans while respecting marine habitats continually.

Why is this so important?

This issue affects all of us, whether you realize it or not.  Overfishing leads to the endangerment of delicate ocean ecosystems.  It is also wasteful and not sustainable and will lead to the collapse of important marine food webs and ruin the ecosystem.  Without managing these areas, a significant part of your diet would disappear, our fisheries are at risk for collapsing, and a food crisis could arise.  For example, the New England cod fishery has already collapsed.  This means that the population of fish in this area is at 10 percent or less of its historical levels.  Once an area gets to this point, recovery for these fisheries may be nearly impossible, and this can devastate coastal economies.  Marine protected areas are a start to protecting and restoring the fragile ecosystem environments and quantity of endangered species.  MPAs contribute to replenishing natural resources for social, economic, and cultural use.

Some of the fish most threatened by overfishing include the Atlantic Halibut, the Monkfish, and Bluefin Tuna.  The part of overfishing that includes catching the unwanted sea animals and putting them in danger while fishing is called “bycatch.” The bycatch consists of all sharks as well as loggerhead turtles, dolphins, and whales.  On a typical shrimp boats, the bycatch includes up to 90% of species that are not desired.  Bycatch often does not survive after being caught, and populations can be depleted this way rapidly.  These animals are not associated with the industry of seafood but often get caught by fishermen.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warns of the drastic increase in overfishing as “the number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and today fully one-third of the world's assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits.”


Now that you are more aware of the dire problems facing our oceans, it is essential to remember that these solutions can help save our beautiful and essential aquatic environment.  Marine protected areas benefit all of us and can help to solve the problem of overfishing.  Ensure that you do your part every day, whether it is choosing more eco-friendly choices at a grocery store or participating in an organization that helps to educate the public and create more of these protected areas.


Reminders of Ways You Can Help:

→ Educate yourself

→ Support and visit the marine protected areas

→ Share your knowledge with others

→ Respect ocean wildlife and habitat

→ Eat sustainable seafood

→ Join organizations and fundraisers

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