Marine Protected Areas

What is a Marine Protected Area?

A Marine Protected Area (MPA) is any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.

The South Atlantic Council further defines MPAs within its jurisdiction as:

A network of specific areas of marine environments reserved and managed for the primary purpose of aiding in the recovery of overfished stocks and to ensure the persistence of healthy fish stocks, fisheries, and associated habitats. Such areas may include naturally occurring or artificial bottom and water column habitats, and may include prohibition of harvest on seasonal or permanent time periods to achieve desired fishery conservation and management goals.



Deep-water MPAs

Eight Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were established in the South Atlantic region in 2009 through Amendment 14 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan. The MPAs are designed to protect a portion of the long-lived, "deep water" snapper grouper species such as snowy grouper, speckled hind, and blueline tilefish.

The MPAs range in size from 2 X 4 nautical miles to 10 X 15 nautical miles (see maps below). In addition to the seven areas that encompass natural habitat, one area off Charleston, South Carolina, was established to create a deep water artificial reef.

Evaluations of the Deep-water MPAs will be conducted through a system management plan review.  The system management plan review will be conducted by the System Management Plan Workgroup and include recommendations on action items addressing research and monitoring, outreach and education, resource protection, and administrative; evaluation of management effectiveness based on biophysical, socioeconomic, and governance indicators; financial plan; and site characterizations of the protected areas.   (A link to the SMP document can be found in the dropdown under the maps below).


The Council, along with state and Federal partners, has developed and approved a System Management Plan (SMP)for the Deep-water MPAs to serve as a blueprint for future research, outreach, and management. The SMP, by outlining data gaps, research needs, and estimated project costs, will serve as a guide for researchers applying for project funding. In turn, the management action items and evaluation metrics included in the SMP will serve as a tool to guide managers in evaluating whether the goals and objectives of Deep-water MPAs are being met.

Read the System Management Plan for Deep-water MPAs 

  • No fishing for or possession of any snapper grouper species.
  • No shark bottom longline gear allowed.
  • Vessels (both commercial and recreational) may transit (direct, non-stop progression) through the MPAs with snapper grouper species onboard with fishing gear appropriately stowed**
  • Trolling for pelagic species such as tuna, dolphin, mackerel and billfish is allowed within the MPAs.

** Fishing gear appropriately stowed means:

  • Terminal gear (i.e., hook, leader, sinker, flasher, or bait) used with an automatic reel, bandit gear, buoy gear, hand-line, or rod and reel must be disconnected and stowed separately from such fishing gear. A rod and reel must be removed from the rod holder and stowed securely on or below deck.
  • A longline may be left on the drum if all gangions and hooks are disconnected and stowed below deck. Hooks cannot be baited. All buoys must be disconnected from the gear; however, buoys may remain on deck.
  • A trawl or try net may remain on deck, but trawl doors must be disconnected from such net and must be secured.
  • A gill net, stab net, or trammel net must be left on the drum. Any additional such nets not attached to the drum must be stowed below deck.
  • A crustacean trap, golden crab trap, or sea bass pot cannot be baited. All buoys must be disconnected from the gear; however, buoys may remain on deck.


Public involvement was critical in the development of the MPAs. The 16-year process is described in a Historical Overview of the Council's MPA-Related Activities and additional documents may be found on the MPA Source Documents page.

As part of Amendment 14, the Council coordinated with the NMFS Highly Migratory Species Division to regulate shark longlining within the MPAs. For more information, please view the Final Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. July 2006 and the Final Rule for Amendment 14.

The Council continued to explore MPAs as a management tool through early 2014. In 2012, the Council conducted a series of Marine Protected Area workshops and convened a Marine Protected Area Expert Workgroup to further address protection of both deep water habitat and species that depend on it, particularly speckled hind and warsaw grouper. The Council was considering reconfiguring existing MPAs or creating new sites to the network of deepwater MPAs in place. However, at the June 2014 Council meeting the Council decided to explore an alternative approach for protecting vulnerable populations of fish, like speckled hind and warsaw grouper. The alternative approach that is being considered would involve creating Special Management Zones (SMZs) for spawning areas for key species. For more information, see Snapper Grouper Amendment 36 on the Amendments Under Development page.

Poster - Special Management Zones

The workshops gave the public the opportunity to share information on encounters of speckled hind and warsaw grouper and important habitat areas for these species.

A series of workshops was held in the region in April (SC), May (GA), and August 2012 (NC and FL). The Council considered input from the workshops during its September 10-14, 2012 meeting in Charleston, SC.

MPA Workshop Summary

May 16-17, 2012 -
Location: Pooler, GA
Meeting Materials:

MPA Expert Workgroup Final Report to the Council -June 2012.
February 4-6, 2013 -
Location: North Charleston, SC
Meeting Materials: