2021: A Year of New Opportunity and Community

By Cameron Helman

March 2022

As we continue to learn and grow with the ever-changing times, 2021 saw great strides towards the return of many activities and new adaptations to a pandemic-world. The National Marine Sanctuary System continued to enthusiastically engage those interested in our ocean and protected waters, and created new opportunities for people to connect not only with their local sanctuaries but with each other.

Throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System, we hosted programs both in person and virtually, in a variety of areas including conservation, service, heritage, and education. Each national marine sanctuary found creative new ways to interact with their communities and continue vital work protecting our underwater treasures. These accomplishment reports highlight the range and depth of the work each sanctuary achieved in 2021 and hint at exciting projects in the year ahead.

Strengthening Connections

Something that has stood out to many during the pandemic is the value of community. This notion has inspired sanctuaries across the system to work tirelessly to engage with our local communities both in person and virtually throughout the year.

Educational engagement is vital to fostering passion for marine stewardship in younger generations. At Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, our virtual classroom program reached over 7,500 students from kindergarten to the university level. The programming ranged from virtual tours of the sanctuary to marine mammal soundscapes and interactive presentations. The sanctuary was able to interact with classes in both rural and urban environments, bringing a breadth of knowledge to eager young learners.

Across the Pacific, in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, we launched our Ocean Classroom program, which brings marine science education to students and teachers virtually. The program connected with over 1,500 students during the year through a variety of presentations, demonstrations, and activities.

a person standing at a table with coral skeletons on display
Sanctuary staff lead a lesson during a live “Ocean Classroom” program. Photo: NOAA

In addition to educational engagement, multiple sanctuaries focused on connecting with the cultural heritage of their communities. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument released Mai Ka Pō Mai, a guidance document to assist federal and state agencies in the integration of Native Hawaiian culture into the management of Papahānaumokuākea. This document is the product of a decade-long collaboration with Native Hawaiian community members and contains strategies for stewardship that support Native Hawaiian culture and conservation.

Moving eastward, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s annual International Film Festival went virtual for the first time in 2021. Virtual attendees from 32 states and nine countries watched over 100 films and interactive livestreams. More than 30 of these films were from our Earth is Blue and Stories from the Blue collections, which highlight the unique features of these special underwater places as well as the important work conducted within national marine sanctuaries.

In the Southeast, staff from Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary created a wide array of virtual outreach programs including galleries, films, and games in various facilities in South Carolina and Georgia. Additionally, the sanctuary, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, created the Gray’s Reef Best Fishing Practices guide. This is a virtually accessible guide that teaches anglers how to fish sustainably at the sanctuary and beyond.

Exploring New Horizons

This year also saw the return of previously paused research and stewardship efforts across the sanctuary system. Staff at Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary returned to conduct on water research for the first time since early 2020. Through the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies (ACCESS) at sea monitoring program, researchers gathered data for sanctuary condition assessments to help with sanctuary planning and management.

Stewardship work at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary continued for Mission: Iconic Reefs, a 20-year program to restore coral reefs. Using cutting edge mapping technology, we were able to monitor changes to the coral reefs and track coral growth, providing an assessment of the restoration project’s success.

scuba divers with large cameras
Divers conduct an archeological survey inFlorida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

Off the coast of California at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, an ongoing recovery project of black abalone continued this year. In 2020, debris flows buried hundreds of meters of intertidal habitat, putting the abalone population at risk. Following a successful rescue mission, 150 rescued abalone were returned to new habitats and sanctuary staff are continuing to track their progress and health.

Just south of Monterey Bay, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary completed an extremely successful field season. With our sanctuary staff and scientists back on the water, over 20 mission critical operations were conducted on sanctuary vessels. These efforts included servicing deep-sea moorings, tracking wildlife, and remotely documenting WWII military aircraft located within sanctuary boundaries.

Expanding Partnerships

Many national marine sanctuaries rely on partnerships to support the vital work conducted there each year. Monitor National Marine Sanctuary deepened its partnership with the state of North Carolina through the North Carolina Office of State Archeology to create a series of webinars and virtual presentations called Submerged NC. Through 15 presentations, we discussed a wide array of topics from hurricanes to historic shipwrecks. The webinars reached a broad audience, as people from more than 40 countries registered and close to 3,000 people attended the series.

Moving up the coast, at Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, we partnered with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network to support public health and safety in the area by monitoring bacterial levels at various popular recreational areas. The findings indicated that the sanctuary waters consistently met safety standards for public use and enjoyment.

a person holding a water quality monitoring kit and wearing blue nitrile gloves
Citizen scientists are able to assist with water quality monitoring in Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Our partnerships not only deepened connections with local communities, but also internationally. 2021 was the first year of a five-year sister sanctuary partnership signed by NOAA and the Palau International Coral Reef Center linking National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa and Palau National Marine Sanctuary. This partnership celebrates and strengthens the bonds between Pacific Island nations and offers new opportunities for cross cultural management and conservation. The two sanctuaries met frequently throughout the year and are developing plans for more partnership opportunities and research collaboration.

Our Growing Community

The National Marine Sanctuary System contains over 620,000 square miles of protected marine environments and habitat. In 2021, the system expanded with the designation of Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which preserves dozens of shipwrecks of great significance to the maritime history of the nation. Throughout the year, our staff and partners explored this newest addition to the National Marine Sanctuary System.

The sanctuary system grew not only through a new sanctuary designation, but also through the expansion of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary’s boundaries—which nearly tripled in size—adding 14 additional reefs and banks. The newly protected areas contain critical habitats both for conservation purposes, such as protecting several endangered species, and recreational and commercial fishing.

a scuba diver swims over a shipwreck
A diver explores Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

On the West Coast, our community also grew with the opening of a new exhibit at the Ocean Shores Coastal Interpretive Center in Washington that focuses on Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Here, you can explore interactive murals and observation areas. Over 20,000 guests per summer already enjoy the center and its attractions, and this exhibit centering around Olympic Coast offers the opportunity to celebrate the sanctuary and the work being done there.

On the other side of the country, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, partnering with the town of Provincetown and the Center for Coastal Studies, is working on a conceptual design for a new visitor center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The project is an exciting prospect for locals, town officials, and businesses in the area. Provincetown is a popular tourist destination on Cape Cod and this new visitor center will highlight both the features of the sanctuary itself and Provincetown's connections to maritime history and culture.

As our sanctuary system celebrates 50 years of ocean and coastal conservation in 2022, we look forward to further engagement with all of our sanctuary communities in ways that foster meaningful connections, promote marine stewardship, and encourage the recreational enjoyment of these special places. We are also immensely grateful for the tireless work sanctuary staff, partners, and local community members contributed in 2021, and are excited to continue this work into the future.

Cameron Helman is a constituent and legislative affairs virtual intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. She is currently a senior at Boston University.