Hope for the ocean’s future

By Garrett Eyer

February 2019

Facing a variety of threats including global warming, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, and overfishing, our ocean is in a constant state of siege. But there is hope.

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The National Marine Sanctuary System works with diverse partners, stakeholders, volunteers, and the public to promote responsible, sustainable ocean uses that ensure the health of our most valued ocean places.

In other words, your national marine sanctuaries offer hope for the ocean’s future.

As we start 2019, we’re looking back at some of our accomplishments across the National Marine Sanctuary System from the past year.

dolphin leaping out of the water
A common dolphin leaps out of the water in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Douglas Croft/MarineLifeStudies.org, under NMFS permit #20519

We worked with partners to develop innovative solutions

New and developing technologies helped national marine sanctuary staff conduct research and manage critical marine ecosystems. Our strategic partnerships with public and private institutions were important sources for ideas and innovation.

On the West Coast, we partnered with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and introduced “pHyter,” a newly developed inexpensive hand-held field-based pH measuring device. PHyter enables researchers and citizen scientists to measure ocean acidification. It will be instrumental in providing the public with a better understanding of the process of ocean acidification and impacts of a more acidic environment to valuable ocean ecosystems.

At Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary near Savannah, Georgia, researchers took steps to improve their wildlife acoustic monitoring technology. Acoustic receivers track tagged sea animals and hydrophones record ocean noise. Coupling these two instruments enabled researchers to identify tagged species as they heard the animals’ sounds. Listening to marine soundscapes can help researchers determine the effects of sound on animal communication, feeding, and migration.

As society has developed new uses for plastics, the variety and quantity of plastic items found in the marine environment has increased dramatically. These products range from common domestic material (bags, Styrofoam cups, bottles, balloons) to industrial products (strapping bands, plastic sheeting, hard hats) to lost or discarded fishing gear (nets, buoys, traps, lines). With a goal of finding new ways to reduce ocean plastics, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary teamed up with Washington CoastSavers and the Million Waves Project for beach cleanups to reclaim ocean plastics and turn litter into 3D printed prosthetic limbs.

people walking on a beach
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary teamed up with Washington CoastSavers and the Million Waves Project to clean up beaches bordering the sanctuary. Photo: James Roubal

We researched, and through that research, we discovered

Although the ocean covers more than 70 percent of the surface of our planet, most of it is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. Much remains to be learned from exploring the mysteries of the deep. From new creatures to unknown seascapes, we utilized cutting-edge technology to update our understanding of our world’s ocean.

At Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, scientists participated in a collaborative expedition that led to discoveries of new species, including never-before-seen sea fans, and sea corals. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and various partners mobilized in response to an unprecedented stony coral disease outbreak that threatens the marine ecosystem and the local economy.

In the Gulf of Mexico, researchers discovered that Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary may be part of a juvenile manta ray habitat, the first of its kind to be described in a scientific study.

diver near diseased coral
A diver documents stony coral tissue loss disease in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

We created opportunities for tourism and recreation

Sustainable recreational fishing and boating are major activities in the Blue Economy, benefiting coastal communities and enriching the lives of millions of Americans. In 2018, we continued our efforts to engage recreational anglers and tourists alike.

In the Florida Keys, we launched the Blue Star Fishing Guide Program to recognize recreational fishing charter captains who are committed to sustainable fishing and educating their customers about resource protection in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

In Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, we created the Greater Farallones’ Discover Your Sanctuary story map, a valuable resource and a gateway to new worlds of adventure and exploration.

In Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, divers deployed and maintained 42 mooring buoys during the tourist season on 38 shipwrecks. The moorings make the wrecks easier to locate and provide a safe means of descent and ascent for divers. They also greatly reduce the likelihood of anchor damage to the sanctuary’s historic vessels.

mooring buoy and boat
Mooring buoys in places like Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary help boaters avoid damaging important resources. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

We helped educate

Through our outreach efforts we were able to reach thousands of students across the sanctuary system, helping to prepare the next generation of conservation leaders.

At Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, we provided a variety of educational opportunities for students and the public throughout the year. Sanctuary staff visited dozens of classrooms on O‘ahu, Maui and Kaua‘i, teaching hundreds of students about humpback whales and the importance of research and stewardship.

Monitor National Marine Sanctuary created three new curriculum guides to excite and motivate students to learn about our nation’s maritime heritage while offering activities in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).

At Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a reconstructed dive tank provided hands-on learning opportunities for science, technology, engineering, and math. Fourteen teams of middle and high school students were the first to use the tank, competing at the 14th annual Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Great Lakes Regional Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition.

diver near shipwreck
Monitor National Marine Sanctuary’s new curriculum guides help students learn about our nation’s maritime heritage. Photo: NOAA

We collaborated with our national marine sanctuary communities

National marine sanctuaries belong to all of us, and we can’t maintain these special places without the help of nearby communities. Each year, we collaborate with sanctuary communities and help bring the ocean and Great Lakes closer to them.

In September we held SharktoberFest at Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The event celebrated the white sharks’ annual return, bringing 1,500 ocean enthusiasts to the sanctuary’s San Francisco Presidio campus.

We brought virtual reality to National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa by creating a “Virtual Dive Expedition Kit” to engage students, residents, and visitors through guided virtual tours of sanctuary waters.

In July, a diverse group of U.S. veterans toured Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary aboard research vessel Shearwater for a special cruise to celebrate the national “Get Into Your Sanctuary” campaign.

Following Hurricane Irma, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, along with key partners, established Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys to train and allow local businesses to remove underwater debris including lobster traps, fishing gear, and construction materials. The objective is to remove hard-to-reach submerged marine debris without further damaging sensitive marine organisms and their habitat. As of October 2018, the Keys initiative had collected an impressive 6,930 pounds of debris and more than 5,400 feet of fishing and trap line.

students wearing virtual reality headsets
Students in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa revel in the ocean’s beauty as they test new virtual reality headsets. Photo: Chiara Zuccarino-Crowe/NOAA

From new and exciting discoveries and innovations, to key opportunities for us to educate and get involved in our communities, 2018 was a fantastic year for our National Marine Sanctuary System. With 2019 already underway, we hope to soar to new heights and we are excited to have you by our side. Let’s do this!

Garrett Eyer is a volunteer constituent and legislative affairs intern for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a recent graduate of the University of Virginia.