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Working to Create an Ocean Conservation Network

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May 26, 2000

President Clinton will sign an Executive Order today directing federal agencies to strengthen protection of ocean and coastal resources by creating a comprehensive network of “marine protected areas.” The Order establishes a Marine Protected Area Center within the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to coordinate the effort, and calls for protecting areas representative of the diverse marine ecosystems within U.S. waters. In addition, the Order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce pollution of beaches, coasts, and oceans by strengthening water quality protections for marine waters.

A New Strategy for Protecting Our Oceans. Around the world, pollution, overfishing and other stresses are taking a significant toll on the health of our oceans. In response, leading marine scientists and conservationists are calling on nations to establish new protections by creating, expanding, or strengthening networks of marine protected areas, or MPAs. Such areas include marine sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, ecological reserves, and other designations that provide varying degrees of protection -- much as national parks, national forests, and wilderness areas provide different levels of protection on land. In recent years, several expert reports have highlighted MPAs as one of the most effective tools available to protect and restore coastal and marine habitats. Two recent federal action plans -- one prepared by a Cabinet-level task force created at the National Ocean Conference in 1998, the other by the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force – call on the federal government to work with state, territorial and non-governmental partners to expand and strengthen marine protected areas throughout the United States.

There are now more than 1,000 areas within U.S. waters granted some level of special protection by the federal or state governments. Federal marine protected areas include the 12 National Marine Sanctuaries, certain National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, National Estuarine Research Reserves, and other areas. These designations help to protect significant natural and cultural resources, such as coral reefs and historic shipwrecks like the USS Monitor. In addition, they help promote sustainable use of fisheries and other marine resources, provide educational and recreational opportunities, and preserve unique areas for scientific study.

All told, however, only about 1 percent of the ocean within U.S. jurisdiction qualifies as marine protected area, and only about 10 percent of that protected area is afforded the highest level of protection, where fishing and other extractive activities are precluded. Moreover, there has been no systematic effort to ensure an integrated, comprehensive system of marine protected areas representing the nation's major ocean and coastal environments.

The New Executive Order. President Clinton believes that an expanded and strengthened network of marine protected areas is essential to the conservation of America's natural and cultural marine heritage, and for the ecologically and economically sustainable use of U.S. marine waters for future generations. The Executive Order he will sign today directs federal agencies to use their existing authorities to: strengthen the management, protection and conservation of existing MPAs and establish new or expanded MPAs; develop a scientifically based, comprehensive national system of MPAs representing diverse U.S. marine ecosystems, and the nation's natural or cultural resources; and avoid causing harm to MPAs through federally conducted, approved or funded activities.

The order designates the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior to lead the effort to develop a national system of MPAs. It directs the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to establish a Marine Protected Area Center that, in cooperation with the Department of the Interior, will develop a national framework for studying and assessing marine environments and prioritizing protection needs. In developing the national system, the agencies will seek the expert advice and recommendations of non-federal scientists, resource managers, and other interested persons and organizations through a Marine Protected Area Federal Advisory Committee to be created by the Department of Commerce. Also, the agencies are to consult with states, commonwealths, territories, Regional Fishery Management Councils and other entities, as appropriate, to promote coordination of federal, state, territorial and tribal actions to establish and manage MPAs. The order does not specify the number of MPAs to be created or set a specific target for the amount of area to be protected.

In addition, the order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce pollution of beaches, coasts, and ocean waters by developing Clean Water Act regulations that strengthen water quality protections for coastal and ocean waters. These new standards will guide the agency when it reviews proposals for onshore and offshore activities that result in discharges to ocean or coastal waters. In developing these regulations, EPA may set higher levels of protection in especially valued or vulnerable areas.

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