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ONMS International Activities

Introduction | Why ONMS Works Internationally | International Benefits International Infrastructure | Projects | Partnerships
MPA Capacity Building Program | Technical Assistance


South African coastline. (Credit: NOAA)
The ocean is the lifeblood of Planet Earth. Nearly half the world's population lives within the coastal zone and ocean-based businesses contribute more than $500 billion to the world's economy. But the sheer number of people who use and depend on the ocean, whether they live in the coastal zone or not, has created problems such as climate change, depletion of resources, reduction in biodiversity, and degradation of marine habitats and species, among others. National Marine Sanctuaries and other protected areas are important tools to address these issues, providing place-based management frameworks. Tools such as regulations, zonal plans, outreach and education, and research and monitoring are largely focused on a sanctuary and its surrounding areas. These efforts include working with partners holding overlapping and contiguous jurisdictions and authorities.


Some might ask why such locally focused National Marine Sanctuaries are concerned about international activities. There are three primary reasons:

  • Maximizing Resource Protection: Even though sanctuaries have legally defined, largely static boundaries, the resources they protect are not stationary: water itself moves in and out of sanctuaries, as do migratory species such as larvae, large pelagic fish, whales, seals, seabirds, sharks, rays, turtles, and others. So even the strongest localized protection cannot fully protect sanctuary resources. Sanctuary managers and staff must work with local, regional, and international partners to help protect sanctuary resources even when they are not within sanctuary boundaries. Similarly, many threats are not stationary either. Oil spills, invasive species, and marine debris do not begin or end at the boundary of a sanctuary. Working with international partners in addressing these threats helps prevent them from happening anywhere in the ocean, not just in a sanctuary, and helps enhance the ability to respond to them if and when they do happen.

  • Leveraging Resources and Sharing Experiences: The protected area community around the world is a very small one, is chronically under-resourced, lacks basic management capacity, and is increasingly facing unprecedented challenges in the coastal and marine environment. Developing joint projects, sharing experiences and lessons learned, and accessing knowledge and tools all help protected area practitioners do their jobs better. With forty years of management know-how under its belt, ONMS is one of the oldest and most experienced marine protected area programs in the world and is in a unique position to help less experienced colleagues. ONMS has also received tremendous benefits from the lessons learned from colleagues around the world that have successfully tried and tested other management models.

  • Meeting Legislative Mandates and Policy Objectives: One of the purposes and policies of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) is to "cooperate globally." In other words, Congress recognized the need to work outside sanctuaries boundaries to fully comply with the primary mandate to protect sanctuary resources and provided this authority. Further, NOAA's Next Generation Strategic Plan reinforces this, as it states NOAA's mission extends beyond political boundaries of the U.S. to oceans, ecosystems, and the atmosphere...NOAA's many assets - including research programs, vessels, satellites, science centers and laboratories, and a vast pool of internationally recognized experts - make it an essential international resource. Finally, ONMS's own ten-year strategic plan includes Goal 6: Work with the international community to strengthen global protection of marine resources, investigate and employ appropriate new management techniques, and disseminate ONMS experience and techniques.


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    Sea lion resting on a Galapagos fishing boat. (Credit: NOAA)
    Protecting Migratory and Mobile Species: Sanctuaries provide enhanced safeguards for species within their boundaries, a protection that is lost when they leave. Other protected areas along or at the terminus of a migration route or that cover areas for important life stages of living marine resources (e.g., nesting areas for seabirds, pupping areas for seals, fish spawning aggregation sites, larval dispersal and sink sites), provide the same kind of enhanced protection. Forming relationships and developing joint projects among countries with areas of biophysical connectivity will increase the protection to these often endangered and otherwise vulnerable species. Transboundary protected areas and regionally based protected area networks provide similar benefits.

  • Learning From Common Management Experiences: Even if sanctuaries don't share a resource with another protected area, they often manage the same kind of resources (e.g., coral reefs, humpback whales, etc). The issues faced by protected areas around the world are universal: pollution, overfishing, invasive species, climate change impacts, user conflicts. So are management challenges: how to engage stakeholders, how to obtain scientific information to make management decisions, how to prioritize and leverage budgets and personnel. The lessons learned in the management and protection of one protected area are relatively easy to transfer and tailor to other sites.

  • Adapting Proven Tools: As sanctuary and other protected area managers work to meet their mandates, they often develop, implement, and refine programs that help protect their resources. Sharing and adapting these tools among colleagues saves the effort, time, and expense for each manager to develop new ones, and shortens the amount of time to realize the benefits of such tools.

  • Enhancing Management and Technical Skills: The specific management and technical knowledge, skills, and abilities of managers, staff, and partners have a direct correlation on the ability of a protected area to protect its resources and meet its mandates. It is in the best interest of a sanctuary to maximize the capabilities and experiences of those who manage the site.

  • Increased Efficiency in Using International Instruments: Certain kinds of impacts on sanctuary resources must be dealt with in the international arena or using an international authority (e.g., shifting vessel traffic lanes or creating avoidance areas for vessels must be done through the International Maritime Organization). Dealing with such instruments or organizations is often problematic and frustrating, fraught with layers of unfamiliar bureaucracy, political considerations, translation difficulties, and multiple time zones. Learning how to efficiently and effectively deal with such challenges, and sharing that experience with both domestic and international colleagues, can streamline using international tools and encourage more frequent use of such tools.

  • Building Increased Language Fluency and Professional Skills: ONMS has always considered its staff to be its most important asset in protecting sanctuary resources and has sought ways to increase capabilities through training, education, and other opportunities. As international efforts are harnessed to help protect sanctuary resources, they are also used to provide professional developmental opportunities for staff and partners.


International activities represent a fraction of a percent of ONMS's overall budget and are largely conducted based only on staff time and external funding. Total annual staff time devoted to international activities amounts to about the equivalent of three full-time employees. These minimal investments deliver solid results (for example, all seven milestones were met in FY12) and provide the exceptional benefits discussed above.

ONMS's international activities are conducted under a multi-year framework with an annual action plan providing more detail for the activities in any given year. International activities are managed at all levels of the program, some occurring only at or with certain sanctuaries, some on a regional basis, and others managed at programmatic level. Current major partnerships and projects are discussed below.


The needs and challenges for protected areas around the world are so extensive that managers and programs must build international relationships to help address them. Key international relationships for ONMS include:

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    Exploring a Vietnamese shoreline. (Credit: NOAA)
    Agency-to-agency agreements with ONMS's equivalent in other nations. Memoranda of Agreement have been developed with France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.

  • Protected area specific work under country-to-country agreements. ONMS also works on specific projects with colleagues from China, Vietnam, South Korea, and Chile under Science and Technology Agreements and other international treaties.

  • Sister site relationships. A number of sites in the sanctuary system have sister sites elsewhere in the world including between the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Dominican Republic's Marine Mammal Sanctuary, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) and Kiribati's Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Isole Egadi Protected Area (Italy). PMNM and PIPA have also recently established the Big Ocean network, an alliance of the managers of the largest protected areas on earth, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Australia) and the Salas Y Gomez Marine Park (Chile).


International projects range from hosting colleagues for a few days on a site visit to leadership roles in large international conferences. The following are the most important projects for ONMS:

  • Serving on steering committees to develop major conferences of interest to protected area practitioners, including the Third International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas (ICMMPA3; currently under discussion) and the Third International Marine Protected Area Congress (IMPAC3; Marseille, France, October 2013). ONMS hosted both ICCMPA1 and IMPAC2 in 2009, and helped organize ICCMPA2 in 2011.

  • Organizing and hosting the first Marine Protected Area Agency Summit in February 2012, with seventeen nations represented. A new informal partnership called the MPA Agency Partnership (MPAAP) emerged from the Summit and will be coordinated by ONMS until January 2013, when France will take over secretariat duties. The second MPAAP Summit will likely occur in coordination with IMPAC3 in October 2013.

  • Co-developing and co-hosting (with UNESCO) the first ever meeting of Marine World Heritage site managers (which was successfully concluded in December 2010) and supporting efforts to further develop the network of marine site managers.

  • Coordinating the development of transboundary network of protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico in GOM (with Belize and Mexico) to help protect mobile and migratory resources including important larvae sources and sinks.

  • Developing the next phase of the Ocean for Life project, which brings together students of diverse backgrounds and cultures to discover marine science, conservation, and how the ocean connects everyone.

  • Conducting an MPA Management Capacity Building Program to help increase effectiveness in the US and around the world (please see below for a more detailed discussion).


One of ONMS's most extensive international efforts is the International Marine Protected Area (MPA) Management Capacity Building Program. This program was established to not only help meet the ONMS international mandate, but to address the global need for high quality capacity building as well. It was also initiated to help establish connections among protected area practitioners around the world, to share best practices, experiences, and expertise. The hallmarks of the program include:

  • Committed for a multi-year period: The capacity building program makes an initial, minimum three-year commitment to a specific region of the world.

  • Focused on regional needs: The capacity building program does not operate in a one-size-fits-all approach. Each regional capacity building program begins with a needs assessment to identify and describe the specific capacity gaps that exist, and that the capacity building is able to address. A multi-year capacity building plan is then designed to address those gaps.

  • Designed for effectiveness: The capacity building program is anchored by tested curricula and skilled trainer/facilitators who are not only familiar with the curricula but also have direct experience working in protected areas. Each course also contains an evaluative component to ensure that all components-curricula, trainers, format, venue-are working. Milestones and indicators are built into each regional capacity building program.

  • Designed for flexibility: Although each of the curriculum has a number of rigorous standard components at its heart, each one is also adapted to each capacity building event, helping meet specific regional needs. New curricula are also always being developed.

  • Designed for long-term impact: Beyond the initial long-term commitment, the capacity building program contains elements designed to ensure that capacity is secured at both the site and network level, even after the formal capacity building program is over through such means as:
    • Opportunities for individualized commitments through formal agreements, sister site partnerships, and further capacity building opportunities;
    • Development of in-country mentors (leadership teams) during the capacity building program who will continue to carry on the capacity building program and support for individual sites in ensuing years; and
    • Building capacity for in-region trainers to use the curricula and continue capacity building efforts by including "train the trainer" elements in all programs.

Please click here for more information about the six regions of the world where the capacity building program is active and here for descriptions of the eleven sets of curricula currently being used in those regions. Please contact Anne Walton if you have any questions about the MPA Management Capacity Building Program.


In addition to the MPA Capacity Building Program, ONMS has rendered other training and technical assistance on a more informal basis:

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    Hawaii ONMS staff hosting French Polynesian colleagues. (Credit: NOAA)
    ONMS regularly hosts colleagues from other nations to share its experience in every facet of site management and operation, from enforcement to outreach to permitting to vessel operations.

  • ONMS also arranges and/or hosts study tours for groups of marine resource professionals, sometimes focused on a specific kind of resource or interest area.

  • ONMS sometimes conducts one-time or infrequently offered specialized training, either at a sanctuary or as invited to another site, most recently in enforcement; outreach and communications; management of maritime heritage resources; development and use of condition reports; mooring buoy installation; and coral reef restoration techniques.

Please contact Elizabeth Moore if you have any questions about technical assistance or anything else about ONMS's international work.

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