Many important ocean regions off the coasts of the mainland United States are significantly unprotected, according to a new analysis of marine protected areas.

The study finds that large portions of the coast have only 5% or less of its area conserved and a vast majority of the Mid-Atlantic coast unprotected.

For the study, researchers used the groundbreaking science-based framework, the MPA Guide, to evaluate the United States’ 50 largest MPAs, which make up 99.7% of all US MPA coverage. They found that over 96% of the total MPA area, and 99% of the US MPA area that is fully or highly protected from extractive and destructive human activities—is located in the central Pacific Ocean.

MPA coverage in other regions is surprisingly sparse. Just 1.9% of the US waters outside the central Pacific benefit from any MPA protections and most of those are considered only lightly or minimally protected.

Previously an international collaboration of scientists published the MPA Guide, a framework for effective ocean protection. This new research is the first systematic application of the MPA Guide to an entire nation’s waters.

“A lot of work needs to be done, and quickly, to significantly expand marine protection in vast areas of the US waters that have been largely neglected,” says co-author Ellen Pikitch, professor of ocean conservation science at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “Of particular concern is that only 0.3% of the Mid-Atlantic region is conserved, and the strength of that protection is very weak.”

Accomplishing the 30% MPA goal will require a lot of effort, Pikitch says. In order for all ocean regions of the US to reach 30% MPA coverage it would be necessary to protect more than 700,000 square miles of non-central Pacific waters. This is an area larger than the size of the state of Alaska, and about 13.5 times the size of New York state.

The full story can be read here and the release from Stony Brook here. The Journal article can be read here in Frontiers in Marine Science.

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