Guardians of the sea: Protecting the ocean together

Emma Skelley and Jennifer Damian

April 2018

"Sustaining a system of (national) marine sanctuaries, monuments, and other specially designated areas is one of many strategies needed to effectively manage human uses of the ocean."

–Rear Admiral Anthony J. Vogt, Assistant Commandant for Response Policy, U.S. Coast Guard

Last summer, the hit movie Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 reminded us of the importance of partnerships in tackling big jobs. In the movie, an earthling, a number of aliens, a mutant raccoon, and, well, whatever Groot is, team up to save the galaxy yet again. Here, in real life, the big job is protecting our ocean. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (and other NOAA offices) and the U.S. Coast Guard have been partners for decades in doing so.

a person stands on the bow of a boat ready to disentangle a whale
A NOAA staff member attempts to safely remove a large electrical cable from the mouth of a sub-adult humpback whale while off Maui in March 2017. The Coast Guard assisted responders from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Maui Ocean Safety, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, and NOAA's West Maui response team by providing an additional platform work from and enforcing a safety zone in the area. Photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Lester/USCG

The beginning of a partnership

Cooperation between NOAA and the Coast Guard actually dates centuries back, not just decades. The Coast Guard, today a modern steward of resources and enforcer of maritime law, has its roots in the Revenue Cutter Service founded in 1790. NOAA, whose mission is the science, service, and stewardship of our ocean and coasts, dates back to the 1807 founding of the Coast Survey.

Today, the partnership between NOAA and the Coast Guard is guided by the 2013 Cooperative Maritime Strategy, which focuses on three main areas: promoting a safe and sustainable marine environment; enhancing regional collaboration; and fostering innovation in science, technology, and youth education. The Coast Guard works with various parts of NOAA in these activities, for example with the Office of Response and Restoration, the Office of Law Enforcement, NOAA Fisheries, and the NOAA Corps, the nation’s smallest uniformed service.

The Coast Guard is also one of the oldest partners of the National Marine Sanctuary System. The sanctuary system, established in 1972, covers more than 600,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters from the Hawaiian Islands to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. It consists of 13 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments, which are home to historic shipwrecks, a wide diversity of habitats, and a myriad of wildlife ranging from whales to shorebirds. A Commandant Instruction provides for a Coast Guard HQ point of contact, participation on sanctuary advisory councils, and engagement in a number of operational areas. Cooperation between the sanctuary system and the Coast Guard takes place in a variety of areas, including enforcement of sanctuary regulations, emergency response, and joint stewardship of maritime heritage resources.

a hawaiian monk seal looks through a wire enclosure
A rehabilitated Hawaiian monk seal is loaded onto a Coast Guard plane in March 2015 to be returned to Midway Atoll. Coast Guard crew members work regularly with NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources to transport rehabilitated Hawaiian monk deals to Midway Atoll where they can be returned to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle/USCG


The Coast Guard is the primary enforcement agency for the navigable waters of the U.S. and works with other authorities to ensure that enforcement efforts are coordinated and complementary among other federal, tribal, state, and local agencies. NOAA provides additional support through joint enforcement agreements. These joint enforcement agreements are prepared to help coordinate between NOAA Office of Law Enforcement and state fish and wildlife management agencies in order to enforce sanctuary regulations and other NOAA laws. The joint enforcement agreements also cross-deputize state officers so they can enforce federal regulations.

Coast Guard representatives participate on sanctuary advisory councils (community-based groups established to provide advice to the superintendent of a sanctuary) to provide input on a variety of topics. Such coordination allows each partner to be responsive to the management priorities of the other and also provides them a more complete picture of what’s happening on the water. Issues are addressed more quickly, allowing for resolutions to be made before management problems become bigger issues.

Not all joint activities are regulatory or even so formal. The sanctuary system and Coast Guard work together in other areas such as outreach and education. For example, boater education has increased in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as a result of a partnership between the Coast Guard and the sanctuary. Members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary use marked vessels to visit different parts of the sanctuary, inform boaters about the sanctuary's special zones and rules, and promote boating safety.

people sitting in a meeting room
A sanctuary advisory council in Key West provides a forum for discussion of issues related to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Coast Guard has a representative on each of the 14 site-based advisory councils. Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Hulme/USCG

Vessel traffic management

The Coast Guard has the authority to manage vessel traffic in U.S. waters. NOAA has worked with the Coast Guard to help reduce vessel traffic impacts on sanctuary resources. When international traffic is part of the concern, NOAA also collaborates with the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization. This specialized international agency has the authority and responsibility to ensure safe and secure shipping and to protect marine environments from the harmful effects of international shipping. The Coast Guard is the official representative of the U.S. to the International Maritime Organization; NOAA provides scientific and technical expertise to the Coast Guard in this role.

Working together, the Coast Guard and the sanctuary system have established a number of International Maritime Organization-approved vessel traffic management measures to help safeguard the natural and cultural resources protected by sanctuaries. Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas are designations that allow protective measures to be put in place in a specific geographic areas. The U.S. has two Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas, both of which protect sites in the sanctuary system: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A voluntary Area To Be Avoided, which moves vessel traffic away from sensitive habitats, surrounds Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Flower Garden Banks and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries—both sites of impressive coral growth—are recognized on international nautical charts as no-anchoring zones.

The Coast Guard and the sanctuary system have also worked to shift traffic lanes in various sanctuaries to help protect vulnerable habitats and species, and increase operational safety. To protect endangered whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, sanctuary researchers studied whale concentrations and shipping traffic, and discovered that the threat of ship strike was highest in the Boston shipping lanes, which cut through the sanctuary. In collaboration with the Coast Guard, NOAA partners, and the maritime industry, the sanctuary proposed narrowing and moving the lanes to areas used less frequently by whales. The proposal was accepted and went into effect in 2007. The new lanes reduced the risk of whale strike for all large whales as much as 81 percent.

Shifting shipping lanes can also help protect resources in other sanctuaries. Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones national marine sanctuaries worked collaboratively with NOAA, the Coast Guard, the maritime industry, and other partners to recommend lane adjustments to historical traffic lanes into San Francisco Bay to reduce the risk of ships encountering endangered whales. An adjustment in the positioning of the ship traffic lanes within the Santa Barbara Channel went into effect in 2013 to help reduce ship strike risks to endangered whales, especially blue whales.

In 2010, funded with a special congressional appropriation, NOAA created the Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project which identifies the location and nature of potential sources of oil pollution from sunken wrecks. There are over 20,000 shipwrecks in U.S. waters, most as a result of over a century’s worth of natural events, human error, and war. Many of these shipwrecks are “potentially polluting wrecks”: wrecks and cargo that might release oil and hazardous waste into the environment. These concerns led to the formation of the RULET team: NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration, the National Marine Sanctuary System, and the Coast Guard. The project brought together the skills and expertise of the team to conduct a tiered risk-assessment approach that resulted in a narrowed-down list of potentially risky shipwrecks still containing oil, with 87 individual wreck assessments. Eighteen wrecks were identified for additional in-water assessment and potential pollution remedy.

"Everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to the sea. John F. Kennedy said, 'We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we are going back from whence we came.' ... [We explore] the many ways in which marine protected areas can help to preserve our oceans."

–Captain Jay Caputo, Chief, Marine Living Resources & Marine Protected Species Enforcement Division, U.S. Coast Guard

Emergency response

The Coast Guard leads emergency responses to help prevent and minimize damage to sanctuary resources, including partnering to ensure safety and marine pollution response measures. Hands-on simulation drills build the skillsets needed for time-sensitive, effective response and management. These drills are held on a rotating routine basis all year round and all over the country, involving various partners as required by the training scenario.

But occasionally, more elaborate drills are conducted by the sanctuary system and Coast Guard to provide training to sanctuary staff and volunteers on how to respond to potential pollution threats within a sanctuary. Safe Sanctuaries (2005) and Safe Seas (2006) were NOAA-led efforts that built long-term partnerships through integrated efforts across multiple programs, within and outside of NOAA, towards the goal of protecting NOAA’s trust resources and improving the relationship between state and federal resource trustees and the spill response community.

a us coast guard ship and a noaa ship at sea
NOAA’s R/V Shearwater and the USCG Cutter Halibut conduct remotely operated vehicle operations over the USCG Cutter McCulloch shipwreck site. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

Stewardship of maritime heritage resources

The sanctuary system and Coast Guard sometimes also share stewardship of maritime heritage resources protected in sanctuaries. One example of this is the wreck of the lightship LV-71, now also known as the Diamond Shoal Lightship. This floating lighthouse, the only lightship sunk by enemy fire, went down in 1918; the crew not only escaped the ship as it was being fired on by U-boat U-140, but warned more than 25 friendly vessels away from the attack. The wreck is protected by a joint agreement between the Coast Guard and NOAA, and has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

More recently, the Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch was found during a remotely operated vehicle training mission with Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in October 2016. McCulloch, which had seen service at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, sank when it collided with the steamship Governor in 1917. All of the crew were safely rescued, though one died of injuries a few days later. A century after its loss, the Coast Guard, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and National Park Service announced the discovery of the wreck and paid tribute to the historic vessel.

In going to watch the Guardians of the Galaxy – or any of the action blockbusters released every summer – we enjoy the derring-do and brave deeds of the heroes. They get to save the galaxy in about two hours and we get a break from real life. But in real life, the important work of safeguarding our seas is a longer, harder, more important job that takes many hands and hearts to accomplish. The partnership between NOAA and the Coast Guard is and will continue to be an important component of that job.

Emma Skelley and Jennifer Damian served as graduate student volunteers at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries during summer 2017.