Photograph by Naomi Blinick

  • As part of National Geographic Society's Ocean Initiative, National Geographic Education is working to help teachers like you educate your students about the importance of ocean health and the establishment and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

    National Geographic Education has developed a series of teacher-tested classroom activities for you to use in your science courses, specifically to incorporate within your high school biology curriculum to teach students about marine ecology, human impacts on the ocean, and ocean conservation.

    This collection of activities invites you to use current classroom technologies, videos, photo galleries, and maps to give students a clear view of the health and importance of the ocean. These activities provide you with tools that help students take effective notes, use graphic organizers, and formulate opinions about ocean-related environmental issues. This project-based learning experience culminates with students using their new knowledge about marine ecology and human impacts on the ocean to create and propose a management plan for a Marine Protected Area.

    This unit was originally developed for the National Teacher Leadership Academy (NTLA) 2010 Summer Geography Institute.

    Students investigate the interconnectedness of the ocean and Earth's physical and human systems through videos, discussions, writing, and mapping. They make personal connections to their own lives and are introduced to the concept of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

    2 hrs 45 mins View this Lesson

    Students explore major marine ecosystems by locating them on maps. Students use marine examples to learn about energy transfer through food chains and food webs. They discuss how food webs can illustrate the health and resilience of an ecosystem.

    2 hrs 35 mins View this Lesson

    Students analyze videos to make observations about species, populations, and communities of organisms and discuss their symbiotic relationships. Then they create a hypothetical marine ecosystem and describe the adaptive, trophic, and symbiotic relationships between the biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem.

    3 hrs 40 mins View this Lesson

    Students are introduced to the idea that humans have enormous impacts on marine ecosystems and resources, and explore the stakeholders involved.

    1 hr 40 mins View this Lesson

    Students learn about three examples of human impacts on marine life: migration patterns and shipping, algal blooms and water chemistry, and marine debris. Some of these impacts are due to human activity in the ocean, and some impacts on the ocean are due to human activity on land.

    7 hrs 10 mins View this Lesson

    Students build on their knowledge of individual impacts on the ocean to see how the whole system can react to threats and changes. They examine ways in which human actions throw marine ecosystems out of balance, explore the concept of how impacts can build, and review their understandings of ecosystem dynamics.

    1 hr 50 mins View this Lesson

    Students explore issues related to fisheries sustainability and simulate fish monitoring methods commonly used by scientists and resource managers.

    4 hrs 30 mins View this Lesson

    Students explore Marine Protected Areas on an interactive map and compare and contrast three case studies. They learn how the MPA classification system works in the United States, apply that system to example scenarios, and create case studies of their own.

    4 hrs 45 mins View this Lesson

    Students read a case study and debate the pros and cons of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the region. Then they select a Marine Protected Area and develop and present a management plan for it.

    12 hrs View this Lesson

  • Vocabulary

    Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abiotic Adjective

    lacking or absent of life.

    adaptation Noun

    a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: adaptation
    anthropogenic disturbance Noun

    changes to the natural environment caused by human activity.

    apex predator Noun

    species at the top of the food chain, with no predators of its own. Also called an alpha predator or top predator.

    aphotic zone Noun

    the deepest ocean zone, below 914 meters (3,000 feet). Also known as the midnight or bathypelagic zone.

    atmosphere Noun

    layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere
    autotroph Noun

    organism that can produce its own food and nutrients from chemicals in the atmosphere, usually through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis.

    Encyclopedic Entry: autotroph
    biodiversity Noun

    all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    biogeography Noun study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in space and time.
    biomagnification Noun

    process in which the concentration of a substance increases as it passes up the food chain.

    biomass Noun

    living organisms, and the energy contained within them.

    bioprospecting Noun

    process by which pharmaceutical companies buy or claim genetic resources from native species of a developing country.

    biotic factor Noun

    effect or impact of an organism on its environment.

    bycatch Noun

    fish or any other organisms accidentally caught in fishing gear.

    case study Noun

    form of problem-based learning, where the teacher presents a situation that needs a resolution. The learner is given details about the situation, often in a historical context. The stakeholders are introduced. Objectives and challenges are outlined. This is followed by specific examples and data, which the learner then uses to analyze the situation, determine what happened, and make recommendations.

    choropleth map Noun

    representation of statistical data, such as population, over a specific area using colors or patterns to represent types or intensity of data.

    collapsed fishery Noun

    fishing industry where the number of fish has been severely reduced or depleted. Also called a depleted fishery.

    commensalism Noun

    relationship between organisms where one organism benefits from the association while not harming the other.

    common name Noun

    non-scientific name of a species, or what the organism is usually called.

    coral reef Noun

    rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.

    current Noun

    steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

    Encyclopedic Entry: current
    dead zone Noun

    area of low oxygen in a body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: dead zone
    decomposer Noun

    organism that breaks down dead organic material.

    decomposition Noun

    separation of a chemical compound into elements or simpler compounds.

    detritivore Noun

    organism that consumes dead plant material.

    ecological succession Noun

    gradual, predictable changes to an ecosystem or habitat.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    eutrophication Noun

    build-up of sediment and organic matter in bodies of water, which may cause a change in the productivity of the ecosystem.

    fishery Noun

    industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.

    food chain Noun

    group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food chain
    food pyramid Noun

    diagram of a healthy diet that shows the number of servings of each food group a person should eat every day.

    food web Noun

    all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food web
    Great Pacific Garbage Patch Noun

    area of the North Pacific Ocean where currents have trapped huge amounts of debris, mostly plastics.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Great Pacific Garbage Patch
    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    harmful algal bloom (HAB) Noun

    rapid growth of algae, bacteria, or other plankton that can threaten an aquatic environment by reducing the amount of oxygen in the water, blocking sunlight, or releasing toxic chemicals.

    heterotroph Noun

    organism that cannot make its own nutrients and must rely on other organisms for food.

    hydrosphere Noun

    all the Earth's water in the ground, on the surface, and in the air.

    Encyclopedic Entry: hydrosphere
    hydrothermal vent Noun

    opening on the seafloor that emits hot, mineral-rich solutions.

    hypoxia Noun

    condition of not having enough oxygen in a substance, such as water or blood.

    kelp forest Noun

    underwater habitat filled with tall seaweeds known as kelp.

    marine debris Noun

    garbage, refuse, or other objects that enter the coastal or ocean environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marine debris
    marine ecosystem Noun

    community of living and nonliving things in the ocean.

    Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Noun

    (1999) California law passed to create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) along the California coast.

    marine park Noun

    part of the ocean protected by the government to preserve a threatened ecosystem or habitat. Marine parks are often recreational areas.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marine park
    marine protected area (MPA) Noun

    area of the ocean where a government has placed limits on human activity.

    marine reserve Noun

    part of the ocean where no fishing, hunting, drilling, or other development is allowed.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marine reserve
    marine sanctuary Noun

    part of the ocean protected by the government to preserve its natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy it in a sustainable way.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marine sanctuary
    mark-recapture method Noun

    way of monitoring animal population. A random group of animals is captured, marked with a tag or band, and released before another random group from the same population is captured. Some of the animals from the second group may have been tagged previously. Also called sight-resight, band recovery, and capture-mark-recapture.

    microbe Noun

    tiny organism, usually a bacterium.

    migration Noun

    movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

    mutualism Noun

    relationship between organisms of different species, in which both organisms benefit from the association.

    niche Noun

    role and space of a species within an ecosystem.

    no-take zone Noun

    area set aside by the government where all extractive activity, including fishing, mining, and drilling, is not allowed.

    Encyclopedic Entry: no-take zone
    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    ocean Noun

    large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ocean
    ocean basin Noun

    depression in the Earth's surface located entirely beneath the ocean.

    ocean circulation Noun

    worldwide movement of water (currents) in the ocean.

    oceanographer Noun

    person who studies the ocean.

    open ocean Noun

    area of the ocean that does not border land.

    overfish Verb

    to harvest aquatic life to the point where species become rare in the area.

    oxygen Noun

    chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

    parasitism Noun

    relationship between organisms where one organism (a parasite) lives or feeds on the other, usually causing harm.

    photosynthesis Noun

    process by which plants turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into water, oxygen, and simple sugars.

    phytoplankton Noun

    microscopic organism that lives in the ocean and can convert light energy to chemical energy through photosynthesis.

    predator Noun

    animal that hunts other animals for food.

    prey Noun

    animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

    producer Noun

    organism on the food chain that can produce its own energy and nutrients. Also called an autotroph.

    recovering fishery Noun

    fishing industry where catches are increasing after having been reduced or depleted.

    reservoir Noun

    natural or man-made lake.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir
    salinity Noun


    scientific name Noun

    the name, usually in Latin, of an organism's genus and species.

    shifting baseline Noun

    slow changes in the standard characteristics of an ecosystem, which cause the standards to be adjusted, such as overfishing leading to a lower "baseline" estimate of the fish population. Also called a sliding baseline.

    spillover effect Noun

    process by which fish are protected within a no-take zone, then produce more offspring and eventually migrate into nearby, unprotected areas.

    stakeholder Noun

    person or organization that has an interest or investment in a place, situation or company.

    substrate Noun

    base of hard material on which a non-moving organism grows. Also called substratum.

    sustainability Noun

    use of resources in such a manner that they will never be exhausted.

    sustainable fishery Noun

    industry of harvesting fish or shellfish that can be maintained without damaging the ecosystem or fish population.

    sustainable seafood Noun

    fish, shellfish, and other aquatic organisms harvested from fish farms or fisheries that can be maintained without damaging the ecosystem.

    symbiosis Noun

    two or more distinct organisms living together for the benefit of one or both.

    temperature Noun

    degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

    Encyclopedic Entry: temperature
    tide Noun

    rise and fall of the ocean's waters, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun.

    Encyclopedic Entry: tide
    toxic phytoplankton Noun

    aquatic organism that produces chemicals that, in large amounts, can be deadly to plants and animals.

    trophic level Noun

    one of three positions on the food chain: autotrophs (first), herbivores (second), and carnivores and omnivores (third).

    upwelling Noun

    process in which cold, nutrient-rich water from the bottom of an ocean basin or lake is brought to the surface due to atmospheric effects such as the Coriolis force or wind.

    Encyclopedic Entry: upwelling
    wave Noun

    moving swell on the surface of water.