Stewardship with Purpose and Passion

By Tyler Smith

February 2020

The 2010s saw the ocean face increasing pressure from human impacts and many marine ecosystems are being pushed into an uncertain future. A deeper understanding of and appreciation for the ocean is more crucial now than ever before. As the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries recognizes this concerning reality. It reminds us of the duty we have to ensure the health and longevity of these treasured places in our care. In 2019, we continued to embrace our responsibility as marine stewards with passion and enthusiasm and great things followed.

Fish swirl around a coral reef
A school of juvenile rockfish swim above a colorful outcrop in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Joe Hoyt/NOAA

Partnering to Widen Audiences

National marine sanctuaries are found in every region of the United States and we are privileged to be able to work alongside a diverse array of local organizations and communities who share our goals. Through partnerships, we reach new audiences and bring more people closer to our nation’s marine wonders.

As part of 2019’s annual “Get Into Your Sanctuary” weekend, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary partnered with the nonprofit Project Healing Waters to host a day of deep-sea fly fishing for a group of 12 veterans. The charter offered a unique opportunity for the participants to experience and learn about the remote sanctuary.

a man casts a fishing line from a boat
A veteran casts a fishing line into the blue waters of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: James MacMillan/NOAA

At Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, students from nearby Savannah Technical College have been building a large outdoor exhibit to be displayed at the Gray’s Reef Expo this upcoming Memorial Day weekend, as part of the 2020 NOAA 50th anniversary celebration.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, in partnership with Feiro Marine Life Center, completed the design phase for a new Marine Discovery Center to be built on the Port Angeles, Washington, waterfront. The center will provide a new focal point for marine education in the Pacific Northwest region and will facilitate public and student marine stewardship opportunities.

Providing Hands-On Education

Many of your sanctuaries emphasize the value of hands-on and interactive opportunities when leading outreach or education initiatives. Through instructor-led teaching opportunities and with the help of virtual media, we share our curiosity and enthusiasm for sanctuaries with students of all ages.

Through the internet, we connect people miles apart and help those who are land-locked to engage in incredible ocean expeditions without ever leaving home. Live-streaming has been increasingly used by our national marine sanctuaries to enable viewers to “get their feet wet” in the world of marine exploration (if only figuratively). At Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an expedition carried out in partnership with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to explore sanctuary shipwrecks live-streamed nine broadcasts of its dives with 28 schools. Throughout the broadcasts, sanctuary staff were able to engage in dialogue and answer student questions in real time.

An ROV
Live-streams of a mapping expedition in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary gave students the chance to see a scientific effort in action. Photo: Ocean Exploration Trust

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary also provided its own ship to shore live-streams of an expedition with Ocean Exploration Trust to map unexplored bottom areas in hopes of locating previously unidentified shipwreck sites. Streamed through Facebook Live and Google Meets, the broadcasts gave a rare behind-the-scenes look at the work of an expedition vessel and its team.

We also offered opportunities for the public to learn more in-depth knowledge about sanctuaries in person through citizen science training and volunteer monitoring and research programs. Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary launched a Sanctuary Naturalist Course where participants studied a curriculum of marine biology, oceanography, and fieldwork skills that they could then apply toward volunteer science efforts.

Exploring to Discover and Understand

At NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, we constantly carry out science and research efforts to further our knowledge of the marine environment. The more we understand about sanctuaries, the better equipped we are to make the best management decisions possible for their resources, wildlife, and human neighbors. In 2019, we continued to carry out expeditions to underexplored areas within the sanctuary system in the spirit of discovery and to further our study of the ocean’s endless mysteries.

In the blue waters of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, researchers traveled to the outer islands of the Hawaiian archipelago to search for the presence of humpback whales. Around 180 whales were sighted, and the data collected will be used to draw connections between the distinct humpback populations found in Hawai‘i and across the North Pacific.

On the West Coast, the deep waters of sanctuaries in California yielded specimens and communities new to science. In Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, researchers identified a new yellow soft coral found on the deep slopes of the iconic bank. Nearby on Davidson Seamount in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) made the fascinating discovery of more than a thousand brooding octopuses nestled among warm water seeps in the rocky ocean floor. Behind all of the events, discoveries, changes, and projects described here are oceans of hard work and team effort by everyone connected to our National Marine Sanctuary System.

many small octopuses curled up between rocks
These brooding deep sea octopuses in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary were among several exciting discoveries made by our expeditions this year. Photo: OET/NOAA

Our research expeditions and discoveries don’t always offer up a cause for celebration, but instead uncover new challenges and threats to an ecosystem. A summer expedition to survey areas in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument came upon vast expanses of an unidentified, invasive algae blanketing and smothering the reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Even discoveries such as this one contribute to our knowledge of a sanctuary’s natural environment and can inform our scientists and staff on how to prepare for similar events in the future.

Celebrating Unique Sanctuary Features

Each national marine sanctuary offers its own unique attractions to visitors, such as world class recreational fishing and diving, historic lighthouses, and even rich cultural practices. In 2019, we continued to highlight these valuable aspects, as well as strengthen those under threat.

Monitor National Marine Sanctuary designed a series of dive slates for nine of the World War II shipwrecks found off of the North Carolina coast. Created as a new resource for the recreational diving industry, the slates provide background information, illustrations, and a site plan of each wreck. Common marine life found at each wreck is also illustrated and listed.

In the Pacific region, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa hosted its first ever Fautasi Heritage Symposium to celebrate the traditional Samoan long canoe known as fautasi. The event saw guest presentations on fautasi history, oral history sessions, and guided tours of an exhibition of fautasi historic images. The symposium was part of a wider ongoing initiative to highlight the rich maritime heritage of Samoan culture.

Arial view of boats in the florida keys
A proposed Restoration Blueprint aims to address ecosystem decline in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Shawn Verne

In September, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary released its Restoration Blueprint, a proposal that aims to address sanctuary ecological declines through a number of changes and initiatives developed with decades of research and input from the sanctuary’s advisory council. The sanctuary hopes to safeguard the future of the vital tourism and blue economy centered around its marine resources, as well as the way of life those in the Keys take part in as intimate neighbors of the ocean.

Our responsibility as the steward of some of our nation’s most precious waters is something we cherish daily and take very seriously, especially in light of the many challenges these waters face. We are grateful for everyone who worked alongside us to achieve a 2019 filled with success. We can’t wait to see what 2020 will bring!

To continue following the work of your sanctuaries into 2020, sign up for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries newsletter here.

Tyler Smith is a volunteer constituent and legislative affairs intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a recent graduate of the University of Georgia.