Conserving Marine Wilderness – Consensus Version 22 Nov 11

North American Committee on Cooperation for

Wilderness & Protected Areas Conservation

Conserving Marine Wilderness

Marine Wilderness Working Group Consensus Version

Presented to the NAWPA Committee Agency Heads

Key Largo, Florida, 29 November2011


Marine wilderness is a topic of interest to the seven government agencies that signed the North American Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation for Wilderness Conservation at the 9th World Wilderness Congress (WILD9) inMerida,Mexico in November 2009.  Six of the seven agencies manage protected areas.  The MOU broadly recognizes that marine and coastal areas are included in any reference to “wilderness” within the document:


RECOGNIZING that while the concept of wilderness varies among the Participants, it is generally considered to be land, marine and coastal areas that exist in a natural state or are capable of being returned to a natural state, are treasured for their intrinsic value, and offer opportunities to experience natural heritage places through activities that require few, if any, rudimentary facilities or services.

            WHEREAS Canada, the United States and Mexico share a continent with vast, interconnected wilderness resources – including forests, mountain ranges, wildlife species, freshwater systems, and oceans and marine life – and whereas this shared resource is best protected through communication, consultation and cooperation.

            RECOGNIZING that developing a shared vision of the North American continent’s terrestrial and marine wilderness resources will enhance conservation efforts in each country, as well as cooperation between Participants.

In addition, the MOU highlights these “topics of mutual interest and benefit for ongoing or future cooperative activities”:

  • Part (2)(b)(i) – Commitment to promoting and enhancing wilderness on land and in marine and coastal areas.
  • Part (2)(b)(vii) – Joint identification and conservation of transboundary resources as they relate to wilderness areas.


Wilderness can be legally designated as such in theUnited Statesin accordance with the 1964 Wilderness Act.  InCanada, wilderness areas can be designated by regulation within national parks but no similar provision is available for marine protected areas.  InMexico, the specific term “wilderness” (or tierras silvestres) does not exist by law, but core areas of national parks and biosphere reserves can be managed to sustain wild nature.


The MOU prescribes a North American Committee on Cooperation for Wilderness Conservation, renamed the North American Committee on Cooperation for Wilderness and Protected Areas Conservation (NAWPA Committee) per a decision by the agency heads inBanff,Alberta,Canadain May 2011 to expand interpretation of the MOU to include protected areas.  It is comprised of the heads of the signatory agencies that in turn delegate substantive work to their staff who comprise a Working Committee made up of Working Groups.  The Marine Wilderness Working Group (MWWG) was one of the first WGs to make substantial progress toward producing a tangible output for the NAWPA Committee in the form of this “Conserving Marine Wilderness” (CMW) document.

When the Working Committee first met in person inHalifax,Nova Scotia,Canadain May 2010, it decided that the MMWG will:

  1. Pursue a common definition and management objectives for marine wilderness; and
  2. Examine potential candidate areas for marine wilderness designations in theUnited States,MexicoandCanada.

As a starting point, the MWWG used a draft marine wilderness concept authored originally by USFWS andThe WILD Foundation, coordinator of the Marine Wilderness Collaborative of stakeholders (government agencies, NGOs, scientists, indigenous groups, and others).  Over months of regular discussion with the consistent involvement of expert colleagues from five NAWPA Committee agencies, the MWWG developed this consensus version of a new marine wilderness concept paper (CMW).

The MWWG’s concept of marine wilderness as laid out in this CMW document offers insight into what is meant by the term “marine wilderness” and the purpose of setting management objectives for marine conservation.  It also clarifies that marine protected areas (MPAs) as management tools can encompass the conservation of marine wilderness without necessarily requiring the designation of a new category of MPA.  It is noted that each country, through its own legislative framework and existing MPA categories, can identify which MPAs or parts of MPAs can encompass the conservation of marine wilderness.

The MWWG has shared this “working document” with colleagues outside the MWWG within the NAWPA Committee agencies and among some other North American national government agencies.  MWWG members have prepared a “Summary of Comments” on the August 2011 MWWG Consensus Version from colleagues within their agencies and from other agencies and considered such input in revising the CMW document.  The CMW document will be reviewed by the agency heads at their meeting inKey Largo, 28-30 November 2011.  Next steps will be for the agency heads to consider how to put the consensus CMW document to use in protecting marine wilderness areas inNorth America, including those of a transboundary nature.

Ultimately, the NAWPA Committee agencies could decide to share the final consensus version of CMW with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and encourage use or adaptation of the CMW and appreciation of the importance of conserving marine wilderness.


Healthy, self-sustaining, ecologically intact coastal and ocean ecosystems containing natural assemblages of plants and animals are critical to sustain marine life and the reproduction of species upon which many humans depend. Oceans and associated coastal areas such as estuaries, coral reefs, mangroves and marshes provide many ecosystem services such as providing habitat for biodiversity, functioning as effective and natural carbon sinks, and mitigating storm damage and sea level change.  Seasonal and year-round ice-covered areas support ice-dependent biodiversity and help mitigate storm events.  Maintaining the ecological integrity of these diverse ocean and coastal areas will increase resilience to disturbance and enhance their adaptation to climate change.

The need for conserving marine wilderness is greater than ever.  The global ocean comprises 70% of the Earth’s surface, yet currently marine protected areas (MPAs) safeguard only 1%, and only a fraction of MPAs can be considered as including marine wilderness.

In this document, “marine protected area” and “MPA” mean any marine area that meets the accepted international definition of “protected area”:  “A clearly defined geographical space recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem and cultural values”[1].   “Marine” refers to the water column, seabed, and the living and nonliving resources contained therein, located in the open ocean, intertidal zones, estuaries, lagoons, certain large lakes, mangroves, kelp forests, sea grass meadows, coral reefs and other living hardbottoms, soft-bottom habitats, and other vegetative and non vegetative resources for shelter and spawning habitat for all aquatic or coastal species, as well as associated coastal areas and portions of continental shelves, polynyas and land-fast ice edges, among other ecological features of oceans.

Human activities that impact the marine environment include but are not limited to:  unsustainable harvesting of marine life; transportation; resource extraction; exploration for and extraction of non-renewable mineral and energy resources; energy development; aquaculture; military operations; and bioprospecting.  Threats to the marine environment that result from human activity include:  built infrastructure; pollution, and non-native, invasive aquatic organisms. The result is loss of marine habitat and biodiversity, and disruption of natural processes.  Wider threats are now posed by the impacts of climate change, including warming water, ocean acidification, and ecosystem and biome shift.

The natural and cultural resources of a marine environment may be protected in perpetuity by national, state/provincial, territorial, indigenous peoples’, communal or local laws or regulations in MPAs.   MPAs inNorth Americavary widely in purpose, legal authority, agency providing oversight, management approaches, level of protection, and restrictions on human uses.

To date, MPAs have not been established to explicitly protect wilderness values, and many existing MPAs  are unable to offer protection of wilderness values due to how and why they were established and the compromises made to afford their protection in some form of MPA or due to their degradation prior to becoming an MPA.  Some of these MPAs may also be too limited in geographic and/or ecological scale to combine the full range of wilderness attributes – ecologically intact, naturally self-sustaining, and undeveloped; providing for the expression of certain spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic values; and allowing for certain compatible traditional, experiential, recreational, and scientific uses.

However, there are existing MPAs and parts of MPAs (e.g., core zone of a biosphere reserve) that do offer protection of wilderness values. These can serve as clear examples of marine areas with ecologically intact ecosystems that have management goals which preserve the wild character and nature of these special places. The need to distinguish those MPAs, or parts of MPAs, which conserve marine wilderness is recognized to further advance marine conservation around the world.  Thus, the term “marine wilderness protected areas” (MWPAs) is suggested to encompass those places, within the current legislation of each country[2].  These MWPAs can ensure the conservation of marine environments that are under increasing human-caused harm to their wild[3] and natural character.  By valuing marine wilderness characteristics, and applying the wilderness concept (as each nation sees fit), these areas receive special recognition with respect to other, non-wilderness MPAs. MWPAs when combined with watershed-based conservation strategies for adjacent terrestrial areas provide broader protection or restoration potential for intact marine and estuarine ecosystems.

Protecting marine wilderness would foster maintaining biodiversity, ecological integrity, and environmental health by conserving key reproduction areas and habitat critical to maintaining natural age and sex structures of species, key foraging grounds, ecologically important geological and oceanographic habitat features, and critical stopover habitat for migratory species.

Undisturbed wild ocean ecosystems also serve as important natural laboratories and baseline areas for studying global and regional climate change and other human-induced impacts. They provide valuable reference conditions, allowing scientific study of the ecological functions and processes of undisturbed areas and of the socio-economic and cultural importance of such places.  This research will inform conservation and restoration of endangered ecosystems, including with respect to their importance to society, and provide insights into ways that ocean warming, acidification, and sea-level rise might interact with other threats to marine resources.

Protecting marine wilderness would also protect the other tangible and intangible aspects of wilderness character including providing opportunities for appropriate and compatible recreation that allows physical and mental challenges, adventure, risk, and reward; indigenous cultural and subsistence practices; personal renewal, inspiration, a sense of connection with nature, self-reliance, and solitude; and escape from the pressures of modern society.[4]

Preserving wilderness character and values in a marine environment would allow us to make a bequest of great magnitude for future generations, perpetuating a link to our shared wild marine heritage inNorth America.


Marine wilderness areas are primarily intact, self-sustaining, and undeveloped, with no modern infrastructure, industrial activity, or permanent or non-traditional human habitation, including also areas capable of being returned to a natural state.  They retain their intrinsically wild appearance and character and are protected and managed to preserve their ecological integrity, biological diversity, and environmental health.  In marine wilderness, where the earth and its community of life are uncontrolled by humans and natural processes dominate, humans use and enjoy the areas in ways that are consistent with their wild character and that leave the areas unimpaired for future generations.

Marine wilderness also should be of sufficient size to:   perpetuate its protection and use in a relatively unimpaired condition; continue opportunities for compatible subsistence uses and indigenous cultural practices; allow low-impact, minimally invasive educational and scientific research activities that further the administrative or educational objectives or scientific knowledge of the wilderness area; and if degraded, be capable of being restored or rehabilitated to a wilderness state.

Management of wilderness focuses primarily on human use and the internal and external influences on an area’s naturalness and solitude.  Management generally does not require manipulative activities, and generally managers should only do what is necessary to meet wilderness objectives and use the minimum tools, enforcement and other compliance measures to achieve those objectives. As a management entity, (1) marine wilderness areas in MPAs can be stand-alone sites where the entire MPA is considered a wilderness area, or (2) marine wilderness can be a certain geographic portion, or subarea, within a larger MPA.  Some MPAs have or will have areas within their boundaries that are considered wilderness areas, preserving and protecting a wild character, even if not legally designated as such.  MPAs can be managed in such a way that the management authorities have the flexibility to work within their existing mandates to make marine wilderness a part of their conservation strategy.


Each marine wilderness protected area should be managed and protected according to the condition of that area and as specified by its legal authority, and according to a management plan[5] that is compatible with the goal and objectives below:

Goal – Protect , maintain and restore the wilderness character of defined marine areas by protecting their ecological integrity, wild and natural appearance, biodiversity, ecosystem processes, and undeveloped quality and provide for the human use and enjoyment of these areas in ways that leaves them unimpaired. 


(1)            Maintain or restore the ecological integrity, wild and natural appearance, biodiversity, and ecosystem processes of marine wilderness areas.  Marine wilderness should:


(a)   Contribute to the health, biodiversity and abundance of all living marine and coastal resources.

(b)  Conserve or restore the ecological balance of the ecosystem and food chain (predator-prey relationships) in the marine environment.

(c)   Contribute to ecosystem resilience to climate change and human impacts, such as land- and water-based sources of pollution and sedimentation.

(d)  Avoid the loss of species, in particular species on the IUCN Red List or national lists of species at risk.

(e)   Protect the vital resting, feeding, breeding and nesting areas of resident and migratory species, including invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, seabirds, and mammals and the anadromous aquatic species that migrate inland.

(f)  Protect the aquatic species upon which some land mammals and birds depend.

 (2)      Maintain and restore the undeveloped quality of marine wilderness areas by:

(a)   Prohibiting permanent structures or fixtures, with the exception of regulated navigation and mooring structures necessary for human safety or resource protection and existing structures of historical significance.

(b)  Prohibiting permanent human habitation except with respect to traditional occupancy by indigenous people or as provided for in treaties or other formal arrangements with them.

(c)    Restricting use of motorized equipment, motor vehicles, and motorboats, landing of aircraft, and other forms of mechanical transport to the following as governed by the Management Plan for each particular marine wilderness area:

  • Emergency responses involving the health and safety of persons and wildlife within the area.
  • Public access for appropriate and compatible recreational visits.
  • Temporary measures required by the managing or partner agency that will allow the lowest level of intervention necessary to:
  • Restore ecosystem balance and biodiversity, including the recovery of declined or extirpated species;
  • Control invasive species;
  • Mitigate oil spills, remove trash, fishing gear and other debris, and eliminate other human-caused pollution;
  • Conduct scientific research necessary to protect the wilderness character of that area.

(d)  Allowing appropriate scientific research, monitoring, inventory, and mapping, including of climate change effects, related to the preservation of wilderness character.

(e)   Protecting against the impacts of necessary commercial shipping lanes or customary commercial boat routes between ports, protecting against the impacts to fishing grounds and protecting against the dumping of sewage and other pollutants from vessels.  Area managers will work with the commercial maritime community to protect marine wilderness areas.


(3)       Maintain outstanding opportunities for solitude and recreation, and opportunities for education and aesthetic enjoyment in marine wilderness areas, within the context of a management plan that:

(a)   Protects living marine resources and their habitats, oceanographic processes and geologic features, other natural features, and cultural and historical heritage from harm, harassment, or damage, from users and watercraft.

(b)   Provides for the human use, physical and mental challenge, inspiration and solitude, and enjoyment of marine wilderness while leaving it unimpaired.

(c)   Prohibits commercial enterprise except for those services that provide certain compatible recreational uses or fulfill other legislative wilderness purposes of the area.

(4)       Respect cultural and religious practices of local indigenous people within the confines of the definition and management objectives and consistent with wilderness character and values as conveyed through the management plan.

(a)   Implement collaborative management between government agencies and those indigenous people for whom all or some of the marine wilderness area is within their   traditional territories.

(b)   Respect the relevant cultural and spiritual values of the marine wilderness area, including sacred and ancestral sites and ceremonial and spiritual uses.

(c)   Incorporate oral experiential/traditional experiential indigenous knowledge of the wilderness area along with social and scientific knowledge in assessing, planning, managing, and educating about marine wilderness areas.

(d)   Within the construct of the Management Plan, allow for traditional wilderness-based lifestyles and customs, e.g., inhabiting at low density and using resources sustainably.


(5)       Manage marine wilderness following a publicly transparent process that:

(a)   Implements collaborative management between government agencies and communities.

(b)   Permits government agencies to manage the areas taking into consideration the needs of the communities and user groups who use the natural resources within the marine wilderness areas.

(c)   Clearly demonstrates the necessity of taking management action in wilderness.

(d)   Evaluates alternatives for accomplishing proposed actions in the wilderness.

(e)   Results in the application of the alternative that will have the least impact on wilderness character and values.


[1] IUCN definition of protected area (used whether terrestrial or marine).

[2] “Marine wilderness protected area” is suggested as a term to distinguish those MPAs or parts of MPAs which conserve wilderness.  Such a term will not require a new category of MPA. In some legislative contexts, it could more appropriately be implemented as one category of MPA zoning, called “marine wilderness zones” or something similar.

[3] In the Mexican context, “wild” is understood as natural (holistic concept for environment, habitat, ecosystems, species within, in a natural or well-conserved state).


[5] Understood also as customized “marine wilderness stewardship plan” in theUS context.