US National Marine Sanctuaries
The U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS) system is the federal program that designates marine protected areas to protect and enhance biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural assets of national significance. There are 13 national marine sanctuaries and one national monument covering a total of 150,000 square miles marine waters. The resources protected by sanctuaries range from coral reef and kelp ecosystems to shipwrecks. Established in 1972, the system has worked to expand its coverage across the country and receive sufficient funding for the program.
Congress established the Stratton Commission in 1966 to recommend a new approach to ocean and coastal resources management. The commission released its recommendations in 1969, including a call for a new federal agency for ocean management. That same year, a major oil spill off the California coast near Santa Barbara attracted the nation’s attention and underscored the need for improved ocean management.
Guided by the Stratton Commission and motivated by the Santa Barbara oil spill, Congress passed several environmental laws in the early 1970s including the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act in 1972. Title III of that Act created the National Marine Sanctuaries Program to protect marine parks—a hundred years after the establishment of the terrestrial National Park System. Title III of the Act permits NOAA to:
“…designate as marine sanctuaries those areas of the oceans, coastal, and other waters, as far seaward as the outer edge of the Continental Shelf…which the Secretary of Commerce determines necessary for the purpose of preserving or restoring such areas for their conservation, recreational, ecological, or esthetic values .”
The first national marine sanctuary established in 1975 was the USS Monitor, a shipwreck off the North Carolina coast. Later that same year, Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Florida was designated. The most recent addition came in 2006 with the establishment of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (originally called the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument), the largest single conservation area in the country.
Evolution of the Program
The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act later became the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA). It is reauthorized every four to five years. The first major amendments occurred in 1980 stipulating that the Coast Guard shall provide the enforcement needed to support the sanctuaries. Further amendments came in 1984 to clarify certain issues including public consultations, documenting present and potential uses of the protected areas, and to conduct research and educational programs in sanctuaries. The next round of amendments passed in 1988 gave the NMS authority to permit commercial operations to recover the economic-values in using the resources. Also, vessel groundings or pollution that destroyed sanctuary resources would be liable for response and clean-up costs. Fines collected would be deposited in a specific sanctuary account to be used for conservation. Several changes were made in 1992 including the establishment of citizen advisory councils to assist in planning and management of sanctuaries. The final major amendments occurred in 2000 with the mandate to create a coherent system of sanctuaries. While at the same time, Congress prohibited any further designations until NOAA could demonstrate they could provide adequate resources to manage the existing set of sanctuaries.
Governance Framework of the Program
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (within the Department of Commerce) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages the NMSP and is required to balance conservation with compatible commercial and recreational activities.
There are three ways to designate a marine area for protection. Under the 1972 Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, the Secretary of the Department of Commerce and the Congress are authorized to designate discrete areas. The President also has the authority to establish Marine National Monuments under the Antiquities Act. State Governors have the authority to dispute any designations.
The NMSP is guided by a national strategic plan that sets out seven goals and 19 performance measures. These guide the development of individual sanctuary management plans.