As the National Marine Sanctuary System emerges from the disruption of regular workflow due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many research efforts that were paused are resuming with renewed energy. National marine sanctuaries across the country are revamping projects that were stalled during the early months of the pandemic, and are engaging with diverse communities to establish the foundation for long-term partnerships and community science initiatives. Here’s a look at some of the major accomplishments throughout 2022.
Rebounding Research Efforts
One of the many strengths of our National Marine Sanctuary System is the ability to conduct research to understand the health of our protected marine environments, which inform efforts to conserve and restore those beautiful and critical ecosystems. Many of these initiatives have wide ranging relevance, revealing information that applies to broader marine environments. A central component to understanding the health of national marine sanctuaries is established long-term monitoring programs, through which the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries often collaborates with other NOAA programs to achieve wide-reaching research objectives.
In partnership with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, and building off of previous work by the National Center for Coastal Ocean Science and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, the entire 962 square-mile Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary was successfully mapped, which is an invaluable contribution for future conservation and resource management efforts in the sanctuary. Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is also continuing to model the importance of these programs by resuming their coral and fish long-term monitoring program, after two years of restricted access to the sanctuary due to the pandemic in collaboration with NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program.
Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary further collaborated with NOAA offices this past year through the annual NOAA Ship Nancy Foster expedition, where partnering researchers joined NOAA staff on dive missions to evaluate the sanctuary’s health and continue long-term monitoring of sanctuary research sites. In the Pacific, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary showcased the culmination of four years of interagency acoustic monitoring efforts through the National Marine Sanctuary Soundscape Monitoring project (SanctSound) with the release of the SanctSound data portal, publication of a scientific paper in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, and a feature in a PBS documentary called “Vanishing Whales”.
Ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems, are composed of complicated and interconnected biological and chemical relationships that together form the large synergistic communities reflected in national marine sanctuaries. Last year, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary worked to better understand sanctuary ecosystem health through research programs assessing species interrelatedness and ecosystem dynamics in marine life. Researchers used satellite tags to track great shearwater seabird feeding behaviors and they deployed data tags that give scientists tremendous insight into how humpback whales live their lives. They also conducted year-round sampling of forage fish in the sanctuary. These programs demonstrate the critical need for larger, ecosystem-wide research projects to understand how each of these elements interplay with one another to conserve and maintain healthy environments.
Strength of Community Science & Engagement
While national marine sanctuaries have had great success in leading research projects, vital community partnerships strengthen the reach of these efforts, create space for stakeholder input, and build the capacity for community science and engagement. Many sanctuaries worked last year to expand community partnerships and capacity for locally-informed research programs and engagement efforts.
Creative engagement initiatives can come from anywhere, oftentimes from young enthusiasts on the ground. There are no better examples from this past year than Gabryelle McDaniel and Trinity Gbla. McDaniel, an undergraduate intern with the Educational Partnership Program with Minority Serving Institutions (EPP/MSI), teamed with Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary to create a pilot water quality summer camp program for middle school students in the area. Similarly, Gbla, an undergraduate from Hampton University, interned with Monitor National Marine Sanctuary through the EPP/MSI program, and helped launch the sanctuary’s first underwater engineering summer camp, engaging middle school students in a three-day camp where they learned the fundamentals of remotely operated vehicles, culminating in a competition to test the design, build, and operation skills of each student.
Key partnerships over the past year have also helped expand the scope of exciting research projects. From partnering with Viking Expeditions in Thunder Bay to offer hands-on scientific engagement opportunities to 4,000 passengers, to working with local universities to install buoys in Monterey Bay, and to facilitating a cultural liaison role aboard the Ocean Exploration Trust research vessel to honor Indigenous knowledge in Papahānaumokuākea, these initiatives have built upon invaluable local knowledge and community enthusiasm to more fully understand the sanctuary ecosystems. Not only have new partnerships been established, but existing partnerships have been strengthened; such as Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary continuing its partnership with Diving with A Purpose to carry out a training program for volunteers to participate in an archaeological effort to map out historically-significant shipwrecks and maritime heritage sites.
The strength of these community partnerships built over the past year is paving the way for increased sanctuary resilience, as efforts are beginning to evaluate the impacts of climate change and formulate response strategies. Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries have been at the forefront of this initiative by hosting their “Beyond the Golden Gate Research Symposium,” a meeting of leading marine scientists focused on marine research and conservation challenges, including historic and emerging issues facing our ocean and estuaries.
What Will Happen in the Future?
Looking ahead into the new year, many sanctuaries are emphasizing the need to evaluate climate change impacts to sanctuary resources and how to best ensure sanctuaries remain resilient by developing sanctuary-specific climate plans.
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is implementing a sanctuary Climate Change Action Plan to address vulnerabilities of sanctuary resources to climate change effects. Building off its effort in 2022, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa will work with partners to to lead a series of Pacific Island regional workshops focusing on climate action strategies. Meanwhile, managers at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary have already begun working on this initiative through a comprehensive condition report that assesses the status and trends of the sanctuary’s ecosystems through the lens of traditional ecological knowledge. All of these efforts provide a window of insight into long-term sanctuary efforts to address climate change.
These exciting initiatives from the past year follow a significant milestone: the 50th anniversary of the National Marine Sanctuary System on Oct. 23, 2022. Fifty years ago, the U.S. ushered a new era of ocean conservation by creating a system of national marine sanctuaries that today conserve more than 620,000 square miles of spectacular ocean and Great Lakes waters. Following the celebration of what the National Marine Sanctuary System has accomplished in the last five decades, we are now looking to the future to build resilience and ensure thriving marine ecosystems for the next 50 years and beyond.
Kesten Bozinovic is a constituent and legislative affairs intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. She is currently working at an environmental nonprofit and pursuing an Environmental Metrology and Policy graduate degree at Georgetown University.