West Is Best: Study Ranks U.S. States for Marine Conservation Progress

No fishing. At 362,073 square kilometers, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii is one of the world's largest no-take conservation zones.


Conservation biologists have an ambitious target for protecting marine biodiversity: 20% of the oceans set aside as no-take reserves, where fishing and other activities are banned. As with many other conservation targets, however the world's governments have fallen short on this goal. Little more than 1% has complete protection.

The United States has gone a wee bit further, having declared 1.3% of its coastal waters off-limits. Now, two conservation groups have taken a closer look at what individual states and territories have done to protect marine life in their coastal waters in an effort that they call SeaStates. Compiling data from MPAtlas.org and MPA.gov; researchers from the Marine Conservation Institute in Seattle, Washington; and Mission Blue calculated the fraction of coastal waters that each state or territory has designated as a no-fishing zone.

The groups emphasize that no-take reserves help overfished ecosystems recover and will ensure that healthy environments are as resilient as possible to threats like climate change and ocean acidification. "Our interest is in keeping the world functioning in ways that will continue to support the diversity of life and us," Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Institute tells ScienceInsider. "We see SeaStates—scientists holding governments accountable for their performance—as a potential game-changer."

Here's the percentage of state waters set aside in no-take reserves:

22.9%: Hawaii

8.7%: California

5.7%: U.S. Virgin Islands

1% or less: Florida, Puerto Rico, Oregon, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Washington, American Samoa, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maine.

0%: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire , New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas.

That's not the whole picture. The report notes that the U.S. coast is dotted with 1237 reserves with various levels of protection-some allow fishing but not drilling, for example. Nationwide, these total 10% of state waters, which extend 3 to 9 nautical miles offshore. Factoring in these less-stringent reserves, California's protected area jumps to nearly 50% of its waters and Hawaii to 43%, putting the Golden State in the lead.

Another thing to consider when heaping praise is that it's far easier to ban fishing where few people live and work. The vast majority of Hawaiian reserves (which include state waters), for instance, surround the relatively unpopulated northwestern islands; fishing is prohibited in just 0.03% of water around the developed big islands. In contrast, more populated California has undertaken a controversial and politically charged process to boost its no-take areas, even in regions with major fishing interests.

More protected areas are in the works elsewhere. Oregon has identified six no-take reserves as part of its marine spatial planning process. These would increase Oregon's protected areas to 4% of its waters. Out in the South Pacific, a proposal to ban fishing around the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument would boost no-take area in American Samoa to 8%. Getting other states—particularly on the East Coast—to restrict fishing has proven to be a long and contentious saga.