NOAA Investments to Confront Climate Change in National Marine Sanctuaries

By Rachel Plunkett

May 2023

From the kelp forests that support fisheries along California’s coast to the vibrant coral reefs of Hawaiʻi and Florida that attract wildlife and millions of tourists every year—foundational habitats in our ocean continue to be impacted by climate change and marine debris. NOAA recently announced investments of $562 million to 149 projects in 30 states and territories as part of the agency’s Climate-Ready Coasts initiative under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), including projects within America’s national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments.

"The Biden-Harris Administration is moving aggressively to tackle the climate crisis and help communities that are experiencing increased flooding, storm surge, and more frequent extreme weather events," said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. "These investments will create jobs while protecting people, communities, and ecosystems from the threats of climate change, and help our nation take the steps it needs to become more resilient and build a clean energy economy."

Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment. In Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, coral reefs are also linked ecologically to nearby seagrass, mangrove, and mudflat communities. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

Restoring Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function

John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, says that partnerships and community support are critical to climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts within your national marine sanctuaries.

"Sanctuaries exist within a network of partners, including other federal and state agencies, tribal governments, Indigenous communities, local communities, academic institutions, businesses, non-profit organizations, and more," Armor said. "Working collaboratively with individuals and institutions, these critical networks are a key strength and resource for sanctuaries. The nearly $40 million from the Biden-Harris administration that has been recommended to our partners to do work that directly supports our mission represents a truly historic investment in the future of the sanctuary system."

As average ocean temperatures rise worldwide, we are seeing more extreme temperature events in certain areas. Some species are more vulnerable to these changes than others. In both kelp forests and coral reefs throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System (and beyond), these changes are leading to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function.

From the Quileute woman whose family depends on shellfish, to the fourth generation fisherman who watched the black sea bass move north to cooler waters, to the scuba guide who now teaches visitors about coral restoration—climate change is affecting Indigenous people and the coastal communities and businesses that depend on critical resources national marine sanctuaries were designed to protect.

"The impact of climate change on the ocean economy ripples throughout our sanctuary communities, and beyond," Armor says. "Not only are national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments affected by climate change, but they also have an important role to play as places to monitor and observe changes to ecosystem resources and respond to emerging threats."

Restoring Kelp Forests

Bull kelp is a foundational species along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, and due to intensifying marine heatwaves, there have been major declines in bull kelp abundance in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in Northern California. In 2014–2016, more than 90% of bull kelp forest habitat in Northern California was lost, leaving several species of fish, invertebrates, and even mammals and birds without shelter and food sources where there once was.

NOAA awarded $4,900,000 to Greater Farallones Association to support a project that will restore approximately 27 acres of kelp forest habitat by removing purple sea urchins and planting bull kelp at four locations along the northern Sonoma County coastline. The project launched in 2018 with grants from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, The Ocean Foundation, and Tomberg Family Philanthropies. According to Greater Farallones Association, they plan to investigate restoration methods primarily at Fort Ross and Timber Cove on the Sonoma Coast in 2023 and plan to scale up work in 2024. Work to be completed includes restoration assessment surveys, sea urchin removal, surveys of the kelp canopy, culturing kelp spores in the lab for outplanting in the wild, and coastal surveys to assess kelp that has detached and washed to the shore.

Commercial urchin diver harvesting purple urchins
Commercial urchin divers will be part of the restoration by removing purple urchins at restoration sites that will be monitored. Photo: Grant Downey
Bull kelp forest
Bull kelp forms underwater forests that provide habitat and food for numerous species, sequester carbon, and that have historically supported coastal Indigenous communities, commercial and recreational fisheries, and local tourism. Photo: Keith Johnson

"Kelp is a vital habitat along our coast—the loss of which has cascading effects throughout the entire ecosystem—similar to a forest losing all of its trees," said Maria Brown, superintendent of Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. "We need to take action and work collaboratively with partners to build healthy, resilient kelp ecosystems. National marine sanctuaries contain some of our nation’s most significant natural and cultural marine areas, and are therefore a high priority for kelp restoration efforts."

Saving Florida’s Coral Reef

Florida’s Coral Reef is home to over 40 species of reef-building corals that provide shelter, food and breeding sites for millions of plants and animals. Due to climate change, disease, and other factors, nearly 90% of the live corals that once dominated these reefs have been lost. In 2019, NOAA and its partners launched Mission: Iconic Reefs, a 20-year restoration plan that targets seven iconic reef sites in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This long-term restoration plan complements NOAA's ongoing Restoration Blueprint and management plan for the sanctuary.

This collaborative project not only focuses on planting corals to revitalize the reef, but also takes proactive steps to create more resilient reefs by introducing more climate-tolerant and disease-resilient corals. The Mission Iconic Reefs plan also includes the reintroduction of herbivorous crabs and sea urchins to improve habitat quality, while also removing nuisance and invasive species.

Diver with elkhorn coral
Elkhorn coral is a fast-growing, reef-building coral that provides structure and habitat in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This is one of the primary species of coral being targeted for restoration under Mission: Iconic Reefs. Photo: Coral Restoration Foundation
Slower-growing corals shown in a lab.
Slower-growing corals can be grown in labs, then outplanted on the reefs. Photo: Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

Under the Climate-Ready Coasts Initiative, NOAA has awarded $7 million to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in support of continued work under the Mission: Iconic Reefs restoration plan. To date, Mote Marine Laboratory has restored more than 200,000 corals of multiple native species on depleted reef sites. According to Mote President and CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby, this funding from NOAA will be used to launch "a transformational initiative focused on holistic coral reef community restoration." Led by Research Program Manager, Dr. Jason Spadaro, Mote’s four-year initiative contains four major objectives:

  1. Expand restoration efforts at all 10 reef sites.
  2. Increase cost efficiency in production, outplanting, and monitoring of corals.
  3. Increase production and implementation of Caribbean king crabs to facilitate restoration success.
  4. Apply science-based methods to ensure a genetically diverse and resilient restored coral reef community.

Additionally, another Mission: Iconic Reefs partner, Coral Restoration Foundation, received $6.9 million for investments in coral restoration in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If these recommendations are approved, Coral Restoration Foundation plans to allocate $4.1 million for work in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, with a goal of reintroducing over 70,000 colonies of endangered coral species across project sites.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Research Coordinator, Andy Bruckner, surveys young coral outplants at Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Research Coordinator, Andy Bruckner, surveys young coral outplants at Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA
Not only is this restoration work integral to returning coral reef ecosystems in Florida to a stable state that can support wildlife and natural processes—it’s also essential for supporting jobs in tourism and commercial fisheries, which make up 54% of the local job market and contribute to the larger Blue Economy. "Florida’s elaborate coral reefs, vast shorelines, and national marine sanctuary attract thousands of environmental enthusiasts each and every year," said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D. "These vital investments will help preserve and protect the natural wonders of Florida for future generations to enjoy."

Marine Debris and Pollution

The Climate-Ready Coasts initiative includes funding for several projects that focus on removing harmful marine debris from ocean habitats, including $14.9 million to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for removing large marine debris from five national marine sanctuaries and two tribal ancestral waters located off the coasts of Washington, California, Texas, and Louisiana, including Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park, Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in partnership with California State Parks, and Flower Garden Banks and Olympic Coast national marine sanctuaries.

Abandoned vessel on the beach shore.
Abandoned, derelict, or grounded vessels often pose a threat to national marine sanctuary resources, such as this one in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA
Two divers underwater observing pipes previously used for treasure salvage exploration and excavation during the Bright Bank Excavation.
The Foundation plans to remove debris from sensitive benthic habitats in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, such as abandoned pipes previously used for treasure salvage exploration and excavation at Bright Bank. Photo: NOAA

"As the most special places in our waters, it is critical we ensure our sanctuaries are free from large marine debris that is harming wildlife and endangering people," said Shannon Colbert, vice president for external affairs at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. "It will require teamwork, technical expertise and community support to remove these items that have been plaguing our ocean, in some cases, for decades. We are ready to work with NOAA and our on-the-ground partners to tackle the problem head-on and clean up these treasured waters."

Cleaning Up Remote Areas

Marine debris accumulates and concentrates in specific zones within the ocean—called gyres—and certain locations within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) accumulate large amounts of marine debris. In 2022 alone, 202,950 pounds of marine debris (the equivalent weight of ten full-size school buses) was removed by cleanup crews in the remote waters surrounding Kapou (Lisianski Island), Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Atoll), Kuaihelani (Midway Atoll), and Hōlanikū (Kure Atoll) within the monument.

Marine debris presents numerous threats to the delicate ecosystems within the monument. This remote archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to endangered, endemic, threatened, and protected marine species, which are in constant danger to the entanglement and/or ingestion hazards that marine debris presents.

A crew removes debris from the water at Midway Atoll (Kuaihelani, Pihemanu) during a 2018 marine debris removal mission.
A crew removes debris from the water at Midway Atoll (Kuaihelani, Pihemanu) during a 2018 marine debris removal mission. Image: NOAA

Hawai'i Sea Grant was awarded $1.8 million to support the use of remote technologies to geo-locate large derelict fishing gear in Hawai'i’s shallow waters. The goal of the project is to develop better solutions that will reduce survey time and make cleaning up marine debris in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument a more efficient process.

Innovative Solutions to Plastic Pollution

Not only is cleaning up large marine debris an important issue that is being addressed through this funding initiative, but so is the prevention of plastic debris from entering our waterways. NOAA announced $2.7 million to California Sea Grant for a collaborative effort to prevent agricultural field plastic films from entering the waters of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

Preparing for Future Climate Impacts

While we have a good understanding of what the large-scale effects of climate change are likely to be throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System, there are differences in the rate and extent of change from place to place. Some places—such as the kelp forests of Greater Farallones and the coral reefs of Florida Keys national marine sanctuaries—are already experiencing dramatic changes to ecosystem function due to climate change.

The investment in national marine sanctuaries contributes to the America the Beautiful initiative by advancing climate-informed management of sanctuaries and contributing to the effective conservation of 30% of U.S. waters by 2030.

Allocating funds through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support high-impact natural infrastructure projects in areas already being impacted by climate change helps ensure that these places and the coastal communities that depend on them are better prepared to adapt and respond to future climate events.

Rachel Plunkett is the writer/editor for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries