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Policy Brief: Co-Management of Marine Protected Areas by US and Indigenous Governments


American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities are disproportionately vulnerable to ecological and climate changes. Coastal AI/AN populations face acute threats of sea-level rise, fishery depletion or collapse, and increased storm activity, among others3. These risks exacerbate socioeconomic challenges in Native country, including poor healthcare, high unemployment, lack of infrastructure and educational resources, and an overall poverty rate of 28.4% (almost double the national rate).

Policy Analysis

AI/AN Exclusion.
Federal agencies such as the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and US Fish & Wildlife Service are increasingly incorporating indigenous ecological knowledge in their strategies to protect marine and coastal environments4. Despite such strides, Tribal governments remain underrepresented in planning and decision-making processes, especially in the creation and management of large-scale Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which have become a popular management tool2. MPA costs and benefits are unevenly distributed: many “no-take” reserves prevent or limit indigenous use of culturally and economically significant marine ecosystems without offering commensurate alternative returns.

MPA restrictions on AI/AN communities intensify socioeconomic challenges, lower their resilience to climate change, lead to internal and/or external displacement from coastal areas, and ultimately reduce the knowledge base for conservation efforts. Lack of Native engagement in MPA establishment and management also proves counterproductive: research shows that stakeholders excluded from environmental decision-making are significantly less likely to abide by resulting policies1.

Precedent for Inclusion.

The groundwork for AI/AN inclusion in MPA processes is laid in Executive Order 1317, which requires federal agencies to establish strategies for consulting AI/AN governments on decisions that impact their populations. Since 2000, agencies responsible for establishing MPAs have maintained systems for coordinating efforts with Native Nations. Examples of MPA co-management already exist in the US, notably Hawaii’s Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument, which is managed by co-trustees Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior and the Governor of Hawaii.


Moving Forward with MPAs.
Marine Protected Areas currently contain over 40% of ocean under US jurisdiction but remain geographically disparate. Establishing an MPA network would increase overall conservation capacity, so has been proposed by a number of parties4. To meaningfully include AI/AN communities in marine conservation and policy-making, MPAs should be co-governed by US and relevant AI/AN governments. Based on shortcomings in Papahnaumokukea governance, notably weak local participation, I propose direct representation of Native governments and stakeholders through a phased, institutionally sound process. Co-management of MPAs should rely on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate tribal claims to marine areas and grant co-trusteeship to tribes whose cases it approves.

Structural Co-Management.
For MPAs currently under federal management, Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior should collaborate with Tribal governments and state and local governments, as appropriate, to assemble a management structure as follows:
1) Interagency Co-Governance Committee representing relevant federal, state, and Native government agencies to set broad MPA conservation policies
2) MPA Joint-Management Board, comprising senior officials of agencies, responsible for management and coordination
3) Senior Executive Board, composed of operational staff from entities responsible for fulfilling management agreements, operational logistics, etc.

Guiding Factors.
Co-trusteeship is complicated by conflicts of jurisdiction, statutory responsibilities, overlapping resource claims, and historical friction over Tribal sovereignty. Effective, equitable shared governance thus requires consistent communication between agencies, facilitated by the structure above.

To limit challenges during the recommended transition, agencies will need to agree on guiding priorities, which could include:

1) ancestral cultural continuity,

2) current resource/ economic interests, and

3) future non-extractive economic models including eco-tourism.

Additionally, a timeline must be set that eases human and financial capital strains on agencies, and that ensures project sustainability across Presidential administrations. To this end, I recommend a phased roll-out whose primary goal is to establish co-governed MPAs, followed by adapting existing MPA management according to established priorities.


1 Bennett, N. J., & Dearden, P. (2014). Why local people do not support conservation: Community perceptions of marine protected area livelihood impacts, governance and management in Thailand. Marine Policy,44, 107-116. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2013.08.017

2 Kittinger, J. N., Dowling, A., Purves, A. R., Milne, N. A., & Olsson, P. (2011). Marine Protected Areas, Multiple-Agency Management, and Monumental Surprise in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Journal of Marine Biology,2011, 1-17. doi:10.1155/2011/241374

3 National Climate Assessment: Indigenous Peoples, Lands, and Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2017, from

4 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources. (2008). Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument Management Plan. Honolulu, HI.

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