The term "heritage resources" in national marine sanctuaries refers to specific archaeological or historic resources such as shipwrecks, navigation aids, submerged aircraft, prehistoric coastal fishponds and a variety of other maritime infrastructure (wharves, shipyards, drydocks, seacoast fortifications and related properties). Heritage resources can also include areas, features or specific locations that are directly associated with traditional community religions, beliefs, customs and practices, and possess significance central to the maintenance of a community's historic identity. Heritage resources may also be less tangible aspects of culture such as traditional practices, languages, place names, voyaging lore or cultural values associated with marine species. Amalgamations of tangible properties and less tangible cultural aspects are often referred to as the "maritime cultural landscape." Sanctuaries actively manage the properties and specific locations within their boundaries, but can interpret the broader cultural landscape for their communities and a larger world audience.
Historic shipwrecks and other submerged archaeological sites are among those physical resources at risk that require protection and management. Sanctuaries often work in partnership with state historic resource managers (who have title to non-military historic resources on state bottomlands) and use state and federal statutes to provide protection. The Maritime Heritage Program (MHP) was created as a program-wide asset to assist sanctuaries with archaeological site survey, identification, documentation, interpretation and education. The program also guides ONMS heritage policy and provides technical assistance to other NOAA offices as well as other federal and state agencies.
Historic archaeological resources such as shipwrecks and submerged prehistoric archaeological sites are vulnerable to natural forces (storms, erosion, biological shifts, e.g., zebra mussels) and human-induced threats (unauthorized recoveries or salvage, trawl fishing, cable-laying, etc.). MHP works with sanctuaries to identify threats and bring its considerable expertise to protect resources and reach out to communities, educational institutions and governments through education and outreach to help all to understand the importance and relevance of maritime heritage.