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Are marine protected areas in hot water?

The Gulf of the Farallones National MarineSanctuary, like many of North America's marine protected areas, is already feeling theimpacts of climate change. Photo: Jan Roletto/NOAA.

By Karen Richardson

While some like it hot, plankton do not. Warmer oceans around North America are forcing plankton to move to cooler waters, and like a moveable feast, fish are following; some going north and some heading further out to sea. People, whales and birds that depend on these fish are forced to adapt their habits to find them—with mixed success.

Changing climate is warming and acidifying oceans, shifting ocean circulation and raising sea levels. These and other impacts are already altering habitats for marine species. Scientists have seen, among many other examples, the iconic American lobster disappear from its southern range and sea birds dying from heat stress and starvation.

North America’s more than 2,000 marine protected areas (MPAs) may offer some hope as a way to help species adapt while mitigating some of the effects of climate change. Together, these MPAs form a network especially suited to provide places for the life stages of key species, protect habitat diversity, and reduce pressures from fishing, pollution and marine vessel traffic. No one yet knows what the full impact of predicted changes will be, but MPA managers and planners hope that the size, placement, and connectivity of current and future marine protected areas will allow them to better help marine species withstand impacts from climate change.

North America's more than 2,000 marine protected areas. More at www.cec.org/MPA. Map: Commission for Environmental Cooperation.


A group of marine scientists, working together through the Commission for
Environmental Cooperation (CEC), have proposed several approaches to better design MPAs. These include protecting crucial species and ecosystems and those of special conservation concern; protecting potential coastal or marine carbon sinks; connecting pathways, including migratory routes; and protecting representative samples of species and habitats. These approaches are now available to scientists, managers and planners in two new publications: Scientific Guidelines for Designing Resilient Marine Protected Area Networks in a Changing Climate and a Guide for Planners and Managers to Design Resilient Marine Protected Area Networks in a Changing Climate.

North America's more than 2,000 marine protected areas. More at www.cec.org/MPA. Image: Commission for Environmental Cooperation.


To highlight these new resources, the CEC is hosting an interactive webcast
discussion on January 28 at 2:00 pm with Maria Brown, superintendent of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of San Francisco, and Juliet Eilperin, national environment reporter for The Washington Post. They’ll be discussing changes they’re witnessing first-hand in their work and exploring what the future holds for North America’s MPAs and the continent’s shared ocean.

Join the conversation and help support North America’s marine protected areas! Visit http://cec.org/CECTalks today.


Dr. Karen Richardson is Program Manager for Terrestrial and Marine Ecosystems at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Her love of the ocean began early, receiving her open water PADI certification long before she could drive. Witnessing human impacts on the oceans first-hand while diving extensively in the Caribbean and Australia motivates her to find solutions to better protect our oceans. She holds master’s and doctoral degrees from McGill University in Montreal and has worked on conservation planning and protected areas on five continents.


  1. Neil Marshall
    S. Calif
    January 30, 2013, 11:43 am

    If your MPA, stepping stone, scheme is to work there needs to be rather more effort than discussed in your article. Sure, large finned organisms can make it, but what about those that are not designed as travelers be they either sessile or not designed for the job ahead, and I include the plankton about which you refer as well.
    Along all coastlines there are areas where the likely-hood of organisms moving north are obviated by currents that head south. How are those organisms going to travel to cooler waters up North? Even in areas where currents may have some seasonal differentiation in flow direction they may not coincide with planktonic stages. Then there are the species that might, amazingly, adapt to the changes and stay where they are. Lots of work ahead!