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Surfrider Foundation Position Statement on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)


Published October 2002


The Surfrider Foundation is an environmental nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world's oceans, waves and beaches for all people, through a powerful activist network. Surfrider has been active in marine protection since the organization's inception by fighting to improve coastal conditions for surfers, swimmers and all beach goers, while protecting the coastaland marine environment. Surfers and ocean users have often been called an ocean “indicator species” - a group who first exhibits the symptoms and suffers from the ill effects of poor management of our ocean and coastal resources. For this reason, we fight for water quality, beaches and marine environment protection so that all people can continue to enjoy and recreate in healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems.

Three of Surfrider Foundation's guiding principles address this:

  1. SURFRIDER recognizes that the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the planet's coasts are necessary and irreplaceable. SURFRIDER is committed to preserving natural living and non-living diversity and ecological integrity of the coastal environment.
  2. SURFRIDER promotes the right of low-impact, free and open access to the world's waves and beaches for all people. SURFRIDER acts to preserve this right of access.
  3. SURFRIDER believes environmental education is essential to the future health and well-being of the planet.

Those of us who frequent our coasts do so for different reasons, but we all value its importance and cherish our ability to enjoy it. The ability to surf, fish, dive, kayak and swim in healthy wild oceans is our coastal legacy and our birthright. However, growing demands on these sensitive coastal and ocean places threaten the health of our marine ecosystems and the fabric of our coastal legacy.

Marine Protected Areas are generally defined as any areas of the coast and ocean together with associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or the entire enclosed environment.

Our goal is to strike a balance between the first two guiding principles, allowing ocean ecosystems to heal and perpetuate while still granting human access, recreation and economic opportunities. We believe that all areas of our ocean should be placed under varying levels of protection, including some that should be set aside for full protection where fishing and the removal or disturbance of living and nonliving material is prohibited. Fully protected marine reserves can allow low-impact non-consumptive recreational activities such as diving and surfing while providing opportunities for research and education. These activities still allow protection of the coastal and ocean environment's ecological integrity. In other areas, recreational uses, including fishing, should be allowed. While fisheries management continues to dominate discussions of marine protection efforts, the Surfrider Foundation supports marine protection efforts that provide for a broader range of goals, many of which are more directly relevant to the public at large.

The Surfrider Foundation is working to create marine protected areas in order to:

  • Enhance the coastal experience by preserving wild recreational areas. Full enjoyment of marine wilderness by surfers, divers, kayakers and other non-consumptive users can only be achieved through the implementation of fully protected marine reserves. Recreational fishing is part of the coastal legacy but is jeopardized by declines in fisheries. Recreational fishing would also be in jeopardy if all marine areas were “no-take” marine reserves, as such, a tiered system of protected areas best reflects all the recreational values of the coast and ocean.
  • Protect special coastal and ocean places from dredging and dumping, oil drilling, mineral extraction, ocean pollution, fisheries mismanagement, large commercial vessel traffic, poorly planned coastal development and water quality problems, while promoting marine education, recreation and research. Current and future generations deserve special coastal places where we can immerse ourselves in a natural setting. This is the legacy we will leave for our children. Ecosystem research and education can only be achieved if some places are protected from adverse human impacts.
  • Restore ecosystem health in marine, estuarine and beach habitats. Recognition of our goal to protect special places requires controlling what is added to the environment as well as what is removed. Restoration efforts include restoring habitat and natural processes in watersheds, estuaries, beaches, dunes, intertidal and subtidal environments. These efforts can restore natural habitats, improve recreation opportunities and reduce costly mitigation efforts2.

We have learned to protect terrestrial areas in natural states for the long-term benefit of animals and plants while providing for recreational lifestyles. Many of us also place a great value on knowing that some places are set aside for full protection, even if we have no intention of ever visiting those places. These areas are called wilderness areas, parks, reserves, preserves, conservation areas, and sanctuaries. In the marine environment, protected areas can serve the same purpose: establishing places where human activity-harvest, pollution, disturbance-is limited or prohibited so plants and animals have a safe place to live, reproduce, and grow in as natural a state as possible. These areas can also allow for non-extractive recreational activities that provide for urban lifestyle stress relief and outdoor education.

However, there is a much larger amount of terrestrial preservation as compared to marine preservation. Currently, only 7.6% of our oceans have any protected status3. Surfrider Foundation believes that the ocean deserves a higher level of protection for all natural and recreational resources. Surfrider is working to identify and protect special coastal places that will aid the preservation of our coastal legacy.

The best-designed protected areas have specific goals agreed upon by scientists and managers, affected users, and the public so that all stakeholders understand what resource(s) are being protected and the reasons for that protection. To be most effective the areas should form an overall network of protected zones that take into account the multiple life stages and trophic structures important to protected and unprotected species as well as recreational criteria that would prescribe activities that are allowed and prohibited throughout various parts of the network. Finally, these zones should be established based on desired water quality and habitat protection4. Additionally, this zoning must maintain the linkages between our beaches, estuaries, nearshore and offshore waters. Testing the health of these linkages requires monitoring water and sediment quality to indicate the health of the habitats.

Marine protected areas have been shown to conserve and restore marine life by protecting the important places they need to grow, feed, and reproduce. Protected areas will ensure the health of recreational areas that define our coastal legacy.

Enhancement of the Coastal Experience:

Marine systems provide a range of benefits to humans, even if the resources are not exploited. Many benefits of marine protected areas are associated with extractive uses, but important non-extractive uses are also provided by marine ecosystems5.

Terrestrial protected areas incorporate recreational use as a component of their management goals. The Surfrider Foundation believes that marine protected areas should accommodate and enhance coastal and ocean recreation. Many coastal recreational activities are non-extractive and have little or no discernable impact on the marine environment such as surfing, sailing, kayaking and diving. Recreational activities are an important part of our coastal legacy. Surfrider Foundation believes that access to coastal places is important to educate future generations about our coastlines and oceans. However, we also believe that certain areas should be restricted from human impacts to allow our natural ecosystems to heal and to prosper. Marine protected areas should establish “no-take reserve” zones for this purpose. The use of “no-take reserves” in combination with water quality protection and ecosystem restoration can holistically protect coastal and ocean ecosystems while maintaining and allowing for continued extractive recreational opportunities along their borders6. Nevertheless, Surfrider feels that all recreational activities, including fishing, should be coordinated in a tiered system of marine protected areas.

Water Quality Protection:

Water quality protection is an integral part of marine protection for both ecological and recreational benefits. Although this goal of marine protection is often forgotten in the focus on fisheries management, water quality is not only a key indicator of overall marine ecosystem health, but also of critical importance to human health.

Section 4 of the Presidential Executive Order Regarding Marine Protected Areas in the United States establishes that the national system of marine protected areas shall be designed, “to better protect beaches, coasts, and the marine environment from pollution…such regulations may include the identification of areas that warrant additional pollution protections and the enhancement of marine water quality standards.” Several examples exist where marine protection efforts have incorporated water quality protection measures for both ecosystem protection and provision of recreational benefits.

For example, an existing protective status in California called Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS) limits water quality impacts by prohibiting point source and storm drain discharges7. In several cases these protections overlap other protections against extractive uses. In addition, there are provisions in the new California Marine Life Protection Act that are intended to protect water quality:

A “state water quality protection area,” is a non-terrestrial marine or estuarine area designated so the managing agency may protect marine species, biological communities, or unique or significant resources from an undesirable alteration in natural water quality8.

Since nonpoint source pollution is the highest water quality threat, these protected areas can help ensure healthy habitats while also providing clean water for surfing and other recreational activities. For example, by establishing marine protected areas, urban runoff draining into a protected area would have to provide a higher level of stormwater filtration, thereby lessening the impacts on coastal water quality.

Restoration and Protection of Ecosystem Health:

Marine reserve areas are increasingly acknowledged as being places where a rich variety of marine life returns and flourishes. Fish populations increase, grow larger and produce more eggs; invertebrates flourish among lush plant life, marine birds feed or nest in greater numbers9.

Within a protected zone, a dynamic balance is established and maintained and, in some instances, begins to replenish the areas outside the zone10. However, many of our most valued marine areas have already suffered significant damage from pollution, mismanaged fishing and altered sedimentation patterns.

Many of the species that inhabit our nearshore ecosystems are long-lived animals with sporadically successful spawning events. These populations can take decades to recover from over harvesting, and even longer if enough of the larger, healthier adults are not left in the population. Furthermore, some species, like abalone and sea otters, have been completely extirpated from many areas. Compounding the problem, estuaries, beaches and much of our marine environment that serves as critical species habitat have been decimated by coastal development, pollution and excessive sedimentation. Surfrider Foundation endorses protection and restoration efforts that will speed up the recovery of estuarine and marine areas to naturally functioning ecosystems.

Protected status can safeguard marine areas from oil drilling, large commercial vessel traffic and associated spills, dredging and dumping, marine pollution, the loss and alteration of habitats and recreational areas from bulkheads, seawalls, the creation of harbors, and aquaculture operations11.


In conclusion, the Surfrider Foundation believes that protection of special coastal and ocean places through marine protection efforts is a proactive and restorative tool that can balance ecosystem protection with recreational use, enhance coastal recreational opportunities, protect water quality and restore coastal and ocean ecosystems.

We need to promote an ocean ethic, which results from education, outreach and public input. Constructive conversation about the design and implementation of marine protection is essential both to the equity of the protection effort and compliance with restrictions12.

[Also see Surfrider's Policy on Marine Protection.]



1. National Research Council, 2001. Marine Protected Areas: Tools for Sustaining Ocean Ecosystems. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

2. Etnoyer P, Nelsen C, and Ranker. 2002. Beach Sand at the Base of the Food Chain, Surfrider Foundation white paper.

3. UNEP-WCMC and IUCN. 2019. Marine Protected Planet [On-line], [October, 2019], Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN Available at:

4. U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of the Interior. (on-line). Accessed June 2002. Federal Marine Protected Areas Web site.

5. National Research Council, 2001. Marine Protected Areas: Tools for Sustaining Ocean Ecosystems. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

6. Roberts, Callum M., et. al. 2001. Effects of Marine Reserves on Adjacent Fisheries. Science, Volume 294.

7. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. (online). Accessed June 2002. A Review of Marine Zone in Monterey Bay NMS.

8. California Department of Fish and Game. (online). Accessed June 2002. Marine Life Protection Act Web site:

9. Ibid.

10. Roberts, Callum M., et. al. 2001. Effects of Marine Reserves on Adjacent Fisheries. Science, Volume 294.

11. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. (online). Accessed June 2002. A Review of Marine Zone in Monterey Bay NMS.

12. Murray, Samantha., et al. 2019. A Rising Tide: California's ongoing committment to monitoring, managing and enforcing its MPAs. Ocean and Coastal Management.