NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries: Protecting Oceans’ Natural Treasures

For 40 years, NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System has preserved and protected some of the most spectacular and treasured resources in the world’s oceans. The system, consisting of a network of underwater parks consisting of more than 150,000 square miles of America’s oceans, includes beautiful coral reefs, lush kelp forests, whale migration routes and underwater archaeological sites.

“Over the past four decades, NOAA’s sanctuaries have protected our nation’s most vital and iconic coastal marine resources so that future generations can enjoy and learn from them,” said Daniel J. Basta, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Through active research, management and public engagement, sanctuaries sustain healthy environments that are the foundation for thriving communities and stable economies.”

Following an oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1969, Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act in 1972, now known as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.  The Act was signed into law by President Nixon and directed NOAA to lay the groundwork for the National Marine Sanctuary System, which now includes 13 sanctuaries and one marine national monument.

“The National Marine Sanctuaries Act is the strongest piece of legislation protecting ocean areas today,” Basta said.

Ranging in size from one-quarter square mile in American Samoa’s Fagatele Bay to more than 5,300 square miles in Monterey Bay, California, sanctuary waters provide secure habitats for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries also serve as natural classrooms for students and researchers, provide cherished recreational spots, and support local economies.

Within the sanctuary system’s protected waters, giant humpback whales breed and calve their young, temperate coral reefs and kelp forests thrive, and shipwrecks tell stories of our maritime history in underwater archaeological sites.

Since 1972, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked cooperatively with the public and federal, state, and local officials to promote conservation while allowing compatible commercial and recreational activities. The primary objective of a sanctuary is to protect its natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean in a sustainable way.

NOAA’s Sanctuary System includes: Thunder Bay, Stellwagen Bank, Monitor, Gray’ Reef, Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks, Fagatele Bay, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale, Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank and Olympic Coast  National Marine Sanctuaries and  Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Some noteworthy accomplishments during the past 40 years include:

The designation of the first national marine sanctuary in 1975 to protect the wreck of the USS Monitor off the coast of Newport News, Va. The Civil War-era ship is best known for its battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginia in Hampton Roads, Va., in March of 1862.

The first place in the world — Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — where mooring buoy technology is used to avoid anchoring on coral. The technology developed at the sanctuary is used to protect coral reefs and seagrass beds in marine protected areas in more than 50 countries.

The creation of the Beach Watch, one of the first citizen-science monitoring projects within NOAA. Established at Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco, the volunteer program is one of several across the sanctuary system.

The designation of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, off eastern Michigan, established to protect its nationally significant collection of shipwrecks in Lake Huron. The sanctuary’s Great Lakes Visitor Center has become a major tourist destination and economic stimulant in the region.  According to a 2005 study on total visitor spending, the sanctuary has contributed $92 million in sales, $35.8 million in personal income to residents, and 1,704 jobs.

The designation of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, as the single largest conservation area in the U.S. and UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, monument encompasses 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean – an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined.

The shifting of shipping lanes in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of Massachusetts, to protect endangered whales in the sanctuary. Since this recommendation, the risk of ships striking whales has been reduced by 81 percent.

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