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Sanctuary Management 101

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The National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) is responsible for identifying, designating, and managing ocean and Great Lake areas of special national significance as national marine sanctuaries. Sanctuaries are managed to protect and conserve their resources and to allow uses that are compatible with resource protection. Management of sanctuaries is composed of a number of components:

  • authorizing legislation
    (National Marine Sanctuaries Act - NMSA);

  • regulations;

  • management plans;

  • management effectiveness programs;

  • permitting;

  • conservation policy; and

  • strategic planning.


The NMSA authorizes the existence of the NMSP, describes the purposes and policies of the NMSP, and provides authorization for appropriations. The NMSA is reauthorized every four to five years, allowing for updating and adaptation as necessary. While the NMSA provides the basis for everything else that follows, the NMSP must also develop regulations, management plans, policies, and operational procedures.

Click here for additional information, publications, and links related to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, including current reauthorization efforts.


Regulations represent the detailed implementation of the NMSA in the protection and conservation of sanctuary resources. Upon designation of a sanctuary or during a management plan review, site-specific regulations are issued that restrict a narrow range of activities, because an activity has already been found to be incompatible with the primary mandate of resource protection or is a proactive step necessary for the protection of a specific resource. The NMSP can also revise existing regulations or issue new regulations after the designation of a site. This may occur after a sanctuary has been in operation for several years and either a new activity is identified that did not exist prior to the sanctuary's designation, or new information about an existing activity reveals it is incompatible with resource protection or is resulting in user conflict. Under certain circumstances, the NMSP can also issue emergency regulations. Although the NMSP would generally seek non-regulatory means to address an issue, circumstances may warrant the issuance of a new regulation.

Click here for additional information, publications, and links related to the NMSP regulations.

Management Plans

Management plans are site-specific documents that the NMSP uses to manage individual sanctuaries. Management plans:

  • summarize existing programs and regulations;
  • guide preparation of annual operating plans;
  • articulate visions, goals, objectives, and priorities;
  • guide management decisionmaking;
  • guide future project planning;
  • ensure public involvement in management processes; and
  • contribute to the attainment of system goals and objectives.

The NMSP has begun a comprehensive process that will lead to the review and possible revision of management plans at all 13 Sanctuaries. Reviews of management plans have been undertaken because:

  • most existing management plans are 10 years old or older and evolving issues may not be adequately addressed;
  • most existing management plans do not incorporate state-of-the-art concepts and practices associated with management of marine protected areas; and
  • the NMSA has a statutory requirement that management plans should be reviewed on a periodic basis.

Click here for additional information, publications, and links related to management plans and the ongoing management plan review process.

Management Effectiveness

Assessing management effectiveness (the achievement of a planned effort or action) is a critical element of the management of sanctuaries, and is done both internally by the NMSP and by external sources.  It is part of routine sanctuary management efforts in order to foster a feedback loop that encourages an internal approach to problem solving and improved performance.

Internal Performance Evaluation

The NMSP has developed a suite of “program performance measures” to measure progress on several representative functions of the program dictated by the mandate of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.  Each sanctuary undergoing management plan review also develops site-specific performance measures that measure progress toward the goals and objectives of the individual sanctuary. 

Performance evaluation contributes to the overall management process by:

  • fostering the development of clear, concise problem statements and measurable outcomes;
  • providing a tool that allows managers to comprehensively evaluate their sites in both the short and long term;
  • allowing site staff to make decisions based on more accurate and relevant information;
  • promoting accountability;
  • supporting sanctuary efforts with an informed resource-allocation process; and
  • motivating staff with clear policies and a focused direction.

Program performance measures are reported on and reviewed annually.  The result of that effort is used in the internal resource-allocating process as a means to inform NMSP leadership on performance-based priorities.

Click here for additional information on how the NMSP conducts performance evaluation, and the results of the first annual “progress report” on the program performance measures.

External Evaluations on Management Effectiveness

Every few years, the NMSP commissions an external evaluation by an independent organization in order to obtain fresh insights, and to assess and support programmatic improvements in the broad operation of the NMSP. External evaluations work to help assess, adjust, and guide the NMSP. Five independent, external evaluations have been conducted on the NMSP since passage of the NMSA in 1972: the General Accounting Office in 1981, an External Review Team in 1993, the National Research Council (NRC) in 1997, and the National Academy of Public Administration in 2000 and 2006.

In 2004, the NMSP also completed the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), a government-wide performance evaluation process implemented by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  The PART’s primary function is to determine whether federal programs are meeting the mandated requirements identified for them in their enabling legislation and if mechanisms are in place to track their progress in doing so (namely, performance measures). The NMSP was “PARTed” with the Marine Protected Area Center (MPAC) under the rubric “NOAA Protected Areas Program.”  The NMSP will be “PARTed” again in the near future, following OMB’s schedule for reviewing all federal agencies.

Click here for a list of past external evaluations on management effectiveness. 


The NMSP has the authority to issue permits to allow some types of activities that are otherwise prohibited by sanctuary regulations, but which generally present a public benefit by furthering the management and protection of sanctuary resources. Permits usually include conditions that are designed to minimize or eliminate impacts to sanctuary resources. Permit conditions may also be included to minimize user conflict.

Click here for additional information, publications, and links related to permits and the permitting process.

Conservation Policy

The NMSP conducts policy planning to provide a framework for the development of policies at both the national (system-wide) and individual sanctuary level. While this proactive approach to resource management is best, in reality most policies are developed in response to something that has already become a problem. The simple scale of some issues may seem prohibitive (e.g., invasive spp), while in other cases the newness of an issue makes response difficult since little information may be available about its impacts (e.g., alternative energy). Policies are often used not only to address issues by themselves, but they also provide guidance in the use of other management tools, such as marine zoning, permits, and regulations. Sites should, for complex issues or those with broad national implications, work within the guidelines of national policies that have been or are being developed.

Click here for conservation policy FAQ’s.

Strategic Planning

Since 2004, the National Marine Sanctuary Program has invested a great deal of staff time and effort in developing and implementing a comprehensive and efficient program planning, execution, and reporting system.  This system is coordinated by the Senior Policy Advisor for Strategic Planning and Program Integration and the NMSP Strategic Planning Team (SPT), which has representatives from all HQ units, regions, and cross cutting programs across the NMSP. Although originally established to institutionalize the annual operating plan process and the structure and operations that support it, the overall purpose of the SPT now is to facilitate the NMSP strategic planning process and provide information on areas of subject matter expertise, while thinking about innovative ways to better integrate operations of the NMSP.  Specifically, the SPT focused in three areas:

1)    NMSP planning and operations -- refining the NMSP AOP process, schedule and components

2)    Agency-level budget and administrative requirements – integrating NMSP activities and requirements within the Coastal and Marine Resource Program (CMRP), Ecosystem Goal Team, and other NOAA matrix/goal teams.

3)    Emerging opportunities – responding to high priority activities or issues that must be addressed due to high visibility or public expectations.

Click here for the NMSP Strategic Plan as well as other planning documents.

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Revised June 26, 2013 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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