Blackened beaches and oil-soaked animals from the Santa Barbara oil spill in California, and the Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, Ohio, became the catalyst for the environmental movement that gave birth to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

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Read about the legislative history of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

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Like nowhere else on Earth, your National Marine Sanctuaries are a premiere system of special places that are diverse in range and epic in scope.

by James P. Delgado

One of the best ideas born in the United States is the idea of a national marine sanctuary — something akin to a national park, but residing in the deep, linked to the land by human use and humanity’s capacity to care. Unlike America’s national parks, which were born in the 19th century, and the National Park Service, which began in 1916, national marine sanctuaries are a more recent achievement. The National Marine Sanctuary System reached its four-decade milestone in 2012. The story of those 40 years is one of dedicated perseverance, struggle, triumph and an ongoing commitment to serve the people and the resource.

Conservation Takes Root
Early efforts to conserve or protect resources in the sea began with a late-19th-century push to manage marine mammal populations in danger of being exploited beyond any hope of recovery. The U.S. Fish Commission, created in 1871 by President Ulysses S. Grant, was another effort, as were treaties governing the hunting of species like fur seals in the Gulf of Alaska and the Arctic.

Faced with pressure to harvest the eggs of the abundant seabird population of California’s Farallon Islands, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside some of the islands as a wildlife refuge in 1909, but like other protected areas — including national parks and seashores — little attention was given to what lay beyond the shore and beneath the surface.

There were those, however — ocean scientists, explorers and others with a deep understanding of the sea — who saw that the ocean, no matter how vast it seemed, needed protection every bit as urgently as the land.

Garbage strewn on beaches highlighted a problem with ocean dumping as early as the 1890s, as unhappy bathers waded through waste-laden surf, but other harmful activities like trawling, dredging and pollution from offshore sewage outfalls remained out of sight and out of mind for most Americans.

An S.O.S. from the Sea
The conservation movement of the 1960s signaled growing public concern about the environment, spurred by environmental catastrophes like the grounding of the tanker Torrey Canyon in March 1967, which leaked more than 35 million gallons of oil off the shores of Cornwall, England. In the United States, an oil well blowout in January 1969 spilled another 400,000 gallons of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel, coating Southern California beaches and marine life for miles.

Famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau issued a blunt call to action in November 1970 when he declared that “the oceans are dying,” citing overfishing, pollution, dying coral reefs and widespread declines in marine life as evidence of their demise. In the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill, this was a tipping point, as protests, hearings and public outcry for federal action prompted Congress and the White House to step in.

Amid the flurry of environmental legislation passed in the early 1970s, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on Oct. 23, 1972. The act gave the secretary of commerce the authority to designate “marine sanctuaries” for the preservation or restoration of areas with special “conservation, recreational, ecological, or esthetic values.”

The Sanctuaries Are Born
Ironically, it was not a teeming coral reef or a stretch of beautiful coastline but the long lost wreck of an iconic warship that would garner the title of America’s first national marine sanctuary. When the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor was discovered in 1973 off Cape Hatteras, N.C., after more than a century in its watery grave, no law other than the Sanctuaries Act was thought sufficient to protect it.

On Jan. 30, 1975, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was signed into existence by President Gerald Ford, setting a precedent for the use of the Sanctuaries Act to protect America’s most precious and fragile underwater treasures. Later that year, a second sanctuary was born when President Ford approved the designation of Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary on Dec. 18.

Additional sanctuaries came slowly as the sanctuary system, part of the newly created National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, studied potential sites for federal sanctuary designation. A 1979 list included 67 possible candidates, underscoring the program’s urgent necessity as well as its tremendous potential.

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