Six victories for the ocean

By Elizabeth Weinberg

January 2018

Forty-five years ago, Congress passed legislation establishing the National Marine Sanctuary System. Today, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of America’s most treasured underwater parks. Over the years, we’ve worked collaboratively with diverse partners and stakeholders to promote conservation and stewardship and meet the needs of people and nature.

As we start 2018, we’re looking back at the past year in your National Marine Sanctuary System. Here are just a few of the highlights.

native hawaiian cultural practitioner sounds a conch shell trumpet
A Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner sounds the (conch shell trumpet) at Nihoa Island. Photo: Jamie Makasobe

We developed partnerships with scientists and the managers of marine protected areas.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument welcomed the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as the fourth co-trustee of the monument. This fourth trustee will help represent the Native Hawaiian community, and will support the protection of Hawaiian cultural resources. In California, scientists completed the 50th Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies cruise, marking 14 years of collaboration among Point Blue Conservation Science and Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones national marine sanctuaries. We supported partnerships with students, too: building upon a partnership with Alpena Community College’s Program in Marine Technology, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary created a “maritime makerspace” hub for teachers, students, science organizations, and more to collaborate. By working with other organizations and individuals, national marine sanctuaries become stronger for everyone.

dislodged coral held in a diver's hand
A science diver inspects a coral dislodged by Hurricane Irma in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Steve Gittings/NOAA

We responded to natural disasters and threats to communities.

In 2017, several hurricanes bore down on national marine sanctuaries and nearby communities, threatening ecosystems and livelihoods. In the Houston/Galveston area, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary staff on the R/V Manta helped the U.S. Coast Guard and partners survey the Houston Ship Channel following Hurricane Harvey. The Port of Houston is the nation’s largest port for foreign waterborne cargo and an essential economic engine for the nation. Sanctuary researchers and partners also worked together to assess the hurricane’s impact on the sanctuary. While the coral cover was undamaged, the team tracked fresh water as it drained into the Gulf of Mexico. Salinity levels returned to normal after a few days, but researchers continue to monitor long-term impacts to the reef.

In Florida, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary worked with federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations to conduct a rapid assessment of Irma’s impact on Florida’s coral reefs. This assessment will help focus recovery efforts. Sanctuary staff have also assisted in removal of damaged vessels that pose environmental and navigational hazards and worked with partners to locate missing and displaced buoys.

abandoned vessel
Abandoned wrecks may contain chemically-treated wood and other harmful materials that can affect marine organisms. Photo: NOAA

We restored habitats and ecosystems.

Restoration doesn’t just happen in the wake of natural disaster; your national marine sanctuaries are constantly working to restore ecosystems so that they can thrive and support recreational opportunities. Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary removed abandoned docks, illegal mooring, and ghost vessels from Tomales Bay, an important wetland habitat and popular area for kayaking, fishing, and boating. The sanctuary also established new procedures like a vessel mooring program that enable recreational boaters to partner with the national marine sanctuary in restoring and preserving the bay.

surfers on beach
Surfers seek their next adventure in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

We created opportunities for tourism and recreation.

It’s no secret that a vacation in Hawai‘i is idyllic. This year, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary received the 2017 Experts’ Choice Award from TripExpert. Based on reviews by widely recognized and go-to travel sources Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, and Fodor’s, the sanctuary was showcased as one of the best attractions on the planet.

The Olympic Peninsula may be less well-traveled than the Hawaiian Islands, but it has a beauty of its own. Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary worked with regional tourism agencies to celebrate the scenery and diversity of the Olympic Coast, while also working to protect the allure and economic opportunities it provides.

This octopus was found during a deep-sea exploration of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: OET/NOAA

We undertook important new research and explored new areas.

Using cutting-edge technologies, remotely operated vehicles, and telepresence, researchers and partners explored the deep-water areas of many of your national marine sanctuaries. In National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, researchers aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer collected critical baseline information of uncharted deepwater areas in American Samoa. The crew mapped thousands of miles of seafloor and discovered several previously-undescribed species.

National marine sanctuaries also worked with non-government partners to explore the deep sea. Researchers aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus explored Olympic Coast, Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries. In Olympic Coast, researchers investigated three previously unexplored submarine canyons in search of deep-sea coral and sponge communities, and conducted an archaeological survey on the World War II-era submarine USS Bugara. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary teamed up with Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for an expedition to Sur Ridge. Using a remotely operated vehicle, the team revisited transplanted corals from 2016 to track individual coral growth, which will help the national marine sanctuary understand how best to restore and protect deep-sea coral habitats.

Working above the waves, a team led by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary tagged 20 shearwaters over the summer. These tags now provide invaluable information on seabird foraging strategies. This, in turn, allows scientists to learn about the health of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, including the status of fish and whale populations.

Archaeologists also made important strides, discovering two new shipwrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. National marine sanctuary archaeologists identified the shipwrecks as the 202-foot wooden steamer Ohio and the 267-foot steel-hulled steamer Choctaw. Both had been lost for over a century. The sanctuary is planning future expeditions to better understand, manage, and interpret the wrecks. Monitor National Marine Sanctuary also made use of advancing technology to support maritime archaeology. Using photogrammetry, the sanctuary has developed realistic 3D models of wreck sites and artifacts. These models help archaeologists monitor sites while also offering historians, recreational divers, fishermen, and more the ability to experience this unique region’s resources.

blue whale
New technologies help reduce ship strikes with whales like this blue whale in Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Jess Morten/NOAA

We worked with partners to develop new technologies.

New technologies can help better manage habitats and conduct research more efficiently. Engineering students from the University of California, Santa Barbara built and installed an innovated shore-based radar system that helps track vessel movements in and around Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The system will help the national marine sanctuary improve enforcement activities. Meanwhile, 10 commercial shipping lines participated in a voluntary incentivized 2017 Vessel Speed Reduction program: by reducing their speed around the Channel Islands, vessels curbed air pollution and reduced the likelihood of collisions with endangered whales.

On the East Coast, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary requested that inventors design an affordable, lightweight remotely operated vehicle for sustained use in seafloor ecosystems. The sanctuary partnered with Robo Nautica LLC to test a prototype that will help sanctuary researchers observe underwater environments from the surface.

Want to know more amazing things that have taken place in your National Marine Sanctuary System this year? Check out the FY17 Accomplishment Reports here.

Elizabeth Weinberg is the social media coordinator and editor/writer for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.