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Brad Barr

National Marine Sanctuaries: Making the Link

It seems a bit unusual for an essay on the National Marine Sanctuary System to appear among the musings and observations of those assembled to help illuminate a century of change along the coast of Alaska. While there is a wide and varied assortment of marine protected areas in these waters, from the vast marine wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to the relatively tiny (2.5 sq. nmi.) Sitka Pinnacles Marine Reserve off Cape Edgecumbe, there are no national marine sanctuaries in Alaska. Perhaps the desire to include a discussion of national marine sanctuaries arose from their absence from Alaska. How could some of the magnificent coastal waters of Alaska not be included in a program established by Congress to protect "areas of the marine environment which are of special national significance." Perhaps it is simply an opportunity to share how others around the US have chosen to use this available tool to preserve areas of the coastal ocean determined to be of "special national significance." Clearly, the notion of the special national significance of Alaska's lands has resulted in the designation of many National Parks and Preserves, National Wildlife Refuges and National Forests. There are quite a few marine protected areas in Alaska already, largely state designations, and special management areas related to fish and fisheries, but the right niche for national marine sanctuaries in Alaskan waters has yet to be discovered.

National Marine Sanctuaries map

National Marine Sanctuaries System Map. (Credit: NOAA/NMSS).
Click image for a larger view.

There are marine reserves, ecological reserves, fisheries reserves, ocean wildernesses, marine wildernesses, marine managed areas, no-take reserves, marine preserves, refuges, parks, and even a few called "sanctuaries", but there are just thirteen designated national marine sanctuaries in the waters of the US Exclusive Economic Zone and the Great Lakes. Areas ranging in size from the quarter square mile Fagatele Bay in American Samoa to the 4,000 square nautical miles of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary along the Central California Coast, the National Marine Sanctuary System includes sites from New England to the Western Pacific Islands and protects nationally significant natural and cultural resources. Both the first sanctuary (protecting the wreck of the Civil War ironclad MONITOR), and the latest to be designated (off Alpena, Michigan designated to protect around 160 shipwrecks in Lake Huron) are focused on preserving the rich maritime heritage of the US. Whether the whales of Stellwagen Bank or Hawaii, the coral reefs of the Florida Keys or Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico, or the highly productive ecosystems of the California or Washington coast, national marine sanctuaries provide the focus for conservation and preservation of these areas as a natural and cultural legacy to pass along to future generations.

whale splashing

Whale Tail-lobbing. (Credit: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary).
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National Marine Sanctuaries are designated and managed under the authority of the National Marine Sanctuary Act, passed originally in 1972 as part of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. It empowers the Secretary of Commerce (who is responsible for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA) to "designate as national marine sanctuaries areas of the marine environment which are of special national significance." The overarching goal for management of these sites is to preserve the biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural heritage of the nationally significant areas. Sites can be designated for many reasons, including preservation of the natural and cultural resources, and to protect unique species or resources. As stated in the Act, sites are designated "to provide authority for comprehensive and coordinated conservation and management of these marine areas, and activities affecting them, in a manner which complements existing regulatory authorities." As much as possible, existing laws and regulations are used to manage Sanctuary resources so as not to create unnecessary regulations where current regulations provide protections sufficient to protect Sanctuary resources and qualities. Where it is possible, partnerships with other Federal, regional, state, and tribal governments are forged to assist with and coordinate management, as well as provide an important voice for local communities and constituencies. As areas managed for use as well as protection, activities including uses involving resource extractions such as commercial and recreational fishing may be permitted in national marine sanctuaries provided that those activities are conducted in a sustainable way and do not harm the resources for which the sanctuary was designated to protect. Management plans are developed for each site, involving broad public review and consultation, that evaluate the conservation needs of that site, within the context of the larger ecosystem in which the site is located, and establishes goals for management. Research is supported and conducted to help managers understand the ecological systems within the boundaries of the Sanctuary, and resources are monitored to determine whether management initiatives are meeting resource protection goals. All of the sites have extensive public education and outreach activities to help the public understand and encourage support for their national marine sanctuaries.


Interpretive kiosk, Provincetown, MA. (Photo by Brad Barr).
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On the East coast of the US, including the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, there are six national marine sanctuaries. Starting from the North, sites include Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve off Alpena, Michigan, in Lake Huron, which contains over 150 shipwrecks, many of which are historically significant. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is located 25 miles off Boston, Massachusetts, and both highly productive and biologically diverse. Largely as a result of the seasonal presence of large numbers of humpback, fin, minke, and occasional highly endangered northern right whales, more than one million visitors visit Stellwagen Bank each year. The MONITOR National Marine Sanctuary was established to protect the wreck of the Civil War ironclad USS MONITOR. This summer, in collaboration with the US Navy, the MONITOR's engine was raised and will be conserved and put on display in the new MONITOR wing of the Mariner's Museum, in Newport News, Virginia. Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary is located off Savanna, Georgia, protects important limestone "live bottom" reefs and is part of the wintering grounds for the highly endangered northern right whale. The Florida Keys is the flagship of the National Marine Sanctuary system. It includes an extensive marine zoning system, including the majority (almost 30) of "no-take" marine reserves in the US. The most recent addition to these is the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, protecting some of the most pristine coral reefs in the Atlantic. Finally, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located off Texas and Louisiana, was established to protect some of the few remaining areas of deep sub-tropical coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. It is located in an area where considerable oil and gas extraction is conducted, and much has been learned here about preserving sensitive marine resources located in oil and gas production areas.

manta ray

Manta Ray. (Photo by Emma Hickerson, Flower Garden Banks NMS).
Click image for a larger view.

On the West Coast and the Pacific Islands, there are seven sanctuaries, and one vast area, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, being evaluated for Sanctuary designation. Again starting in the North, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is located off the State of Washington, protecting the rich intertidal and subtidal ecosystems of the Olympic coast. The site is managed in partnership with the state, and four Indian tribes, in collaboration with the adjacent National Parks, National Forests, and Wildlife Refuges. The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, northwest of San Francisco, is an offshore bank identified as one of the most important fish habitats along the West Coast. The Gulf of the Farallones, which surrounds the Farallon Islands off San Francisco (a US Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge) includes important habitats for marine mammals, seabirds and fish (especially the great white shark) and invertebrates. The largest designated sanctuary is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, encompassing more than 4000 sq. nautical miles. It includes the Monterey Canyon, and -- with the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries -- the majority of the central California coast ecosystem. To the south, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary surrounds the important and biologically rich Channel Islands. The site is managed in close collaboration with the Channel Islands National Park and the State of California. In the Pacific Islands, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was designated to provide protection for the important calving and mating grounds for the humpback whale. The final designated site in the Pacific is at Fagatele Bay in American Samoa. This is the smallest of the national marine sanctuaries, and protects an important western Pacific coral reef ecosystem on a remote part of the island.


Cereanthid Anemone. (Photo by Peter Auster, NURC/NAGL).
Click image for a larger view.

In 1999, former President Clinton established, by Executive Order, established the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, encompassing more than 10,000 sq. miles of remote islands and more than 75% of the coral reefs in US waters. This vast area of marine wilderness is currently under review for national marine sanctuary designation, and depending on the final boundaries proposed, could become the largest marine protected area in the world.

National Marine Sanctuaries are a way for the American people to have a voice in how and where our marine natural resources and cultural heritage should be preserved. The national marine sanctuary designation is something special, and appropriately used where the special protections afforded to these areas will help to preserve their natural and cultural values. It is said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We have many tools available to us to provide effective marine conservation of the coastal and ocean waters of the US, but for the most special, the most nationally significant, there are national marine sanctuaries.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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