Characterization

To effectively manage the resources within the sanctuary system, scientists must understand a sanctuary's natural and cultural resources and the threats they face. Site characterization allows scientists to do so by better understanding the biodiversity, habitats, resources, and ecological processes controlling each sanctuary’s environment. Site characterization also describes the history of the site, resource protection efforts, effects of human activities on natural systems and socioeconomic information.

Site Characterization

Site characterization is the process of identifying and assessing the natural and cultural resources of interest within a sanctuary. Establishing a baseline of the status of resources is critical for later evaluation of the impacts of natural events and human activities, and the effectiveness of management strategies. 

A sanctuary site characterization should consist of products that profile:

1.     Significant structural and functional elements of protected ecosystems

2.     Relevant social, cultural, economic, and management aspects of the sanctuaries.

Site characterizations provide an account of biodiversity, habitats, resources, and ecological processes controlling environmental character, including links with physical processes (e.g. weather, climate, physical conditions). They also describe the history of the site, resource protection efforts, the effects of human activities on natural systems, and socioeconomic information. When combined with monitoring programs research, site characterizations provide the means for objective and informed management and policy decisions. The development of site characterizations for each sanctuary is a strategic planning priority NOAA.

The process for conducting site characterization includes the following key elements:

1.     Identifying an appropriate list of topic areas relevant to the goals of characterization for most marine protected areas;

2.     Reviewing site-specific management priorities;

3.     Matching topics to these priorities and addressing high priority topics first;

4.     Identifying specific products (e.g. documents, CDs, maps, web sites, databases) required to make the site characterization useful for sanctuary management;

5.     Selecting topic experts to compile and synthesize existing information and produce desired products;

6.     Identifying information gaps; and

7.     Recommending approaches to fill data gaps (e.g., prioritization, data collection opportunities, partnerships)

This national plan for site characterization is developed to ensure system-wide consistency in the basic approach to this effort, but it is recognized that considerable flexibility may be required to meet the needs of individual sites. 

NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is partnering with the National Marine Sanctuary Program to provide scientific support for environmental characterization within the sanctuaries. Read more about this exciting partnership and the types of characterization projects taking place.

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