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Sanctuaries provide safe haven for America's endangered marine species

by Matt Nichols

monk seal resting on fishing nets marine debris in the ocean
Marine debris throughout the ocean puts endangered species like this Hawaiian monk seal at risk.
(Photo: NOAA)

National marine sanctuaries play an important role in protecting some of America's most valuable marine ecosystems and the species that call these places home. Sanctuaries provide safe haven for orcas, monk seals, white abalone and several species of salmon and sea turtles.

Although the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are one of the most remote places in the United States, the marine ecosystem there is still under pressure from human impacts. Papahānuamokuākea Marine National Monument provides one of the last remaining refuges for monk seals, whose population has shrunk to only 1,100 animals.

NOAA's staff at the monument is actively engaged in the protection and rehabilitation of the monk seal population. Since 2007, to counter the threat of marine debris, the monument has funded the removal of more than 50 tons of abandoned fishing gear annually from coral reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

2,500 miles to the east, NOAA's network of five national marine sanctuaries off the West Coast contributes to the protection of one of the world's most productive large marine ecosystems, the California Current.

Staff from NOAA's Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA Fisheries are working together to research critical habitat for endangered Southern Resident orcas off the coast of Washington. In 2014, sanctuary staff also worked with various commercial fishermen to identify locations to install acoustic moorings, which are recording vocalizations to identify the distribution and timing of orcas' outer coast habitat use.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is also a partner with The Whale Trail, a non-profit organization dedicated to whale conservation and shore-based whale watching, which reaches more than 22 million people each year. The Whale Trail's outreach efforts are expanding to NOAA sanctuaries in California to encompass a greater portion of the geographic range for Southern Resident orcas.

NOAA's four California sanctuaries aid endangered species through initiatives that range in scale from local to global. The sanctuaries promote local efforts to improve water quality in streams used by coho and chinook salmon, as well as steelhead trout, such as the Monterey Bay first flush citizen science initiative. NOAA Sanctuaries also participate in international agreements to protect Pacific leatherback sea turtles, which migrate between their nesting grounds in Indonesia and Northern South America to the west coast of North America where they feed on abundant jellyfish during the summer.

Staff at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary act as first responders with the California Stranding Network and Whale Disentanglement Team, helping save whales that would likely die without their intervention. Staff at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary aid all protected whales by acting as first responders with the California Stranding Network and Whale Disentanglement Team. Their work helps save entangled whales and also gathers crucial data NOAA and fishermen use to modify fishing gear and practices to reduce future entanglements.

Further to the south, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is working closely with NOAA Fisheries and other federal and state partners to restore white abalone. Since 2014, the team has used the sanctuary's research vessel, R/V Shearwater, to survey abalone habitat along the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, identifying areas to re-establish colonies of white abalone raised in captivity.

While the road to recovery for abalone and other endangered marine species remains far from certain, NOAA's national marine sanctuaries play a key role in conserving America's unique ocean resources, offering a safe haven where these animals can re-gain a foothold.

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