Absolute bearing: The sanctuary system at 45

By Elizabeth Moore

October 2017

We arrive in 2017. The sanctuary system turns 45 this month. We’ve grown from words on a page to a powerful force for ocean conservation in our communities, nation, and planet. The years of the 2000s and 2010s have been spent on refining our system identity and conservation culture. Today, we have an absolute bearing toward strengthening both even more.

pacific white sided dolphin leaping out of the water
A Pacific white-sided dolphin leaps in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Douglas Croft

The recently completed generation of management plans include issue-based action plans, extensive community input, and updated regulations. We’ve initiated the next round of effort to review and where necessary replace our management plans and regulations. Additional expansions are under consideration in Monitor and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries and two new sites – Mallows Bay, Maryland and Lake Michigan, Wisconsin – are in the designation process. An inventory of community-nominated sites await future consideration.

We’ve made extensive use of internationally recognized protective measures such as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas and no-anchoring zones; 10 such measures are in place across the system. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and four sanctuaries are included on the Tentative List maintained by the National Park Service for future World Heritage consideration.

a diver on maro reef in papahānaumokuākea marine national monument
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National monument is recognized as a World Heritage Site, and four sanctuaries are included on the Tentative List for future World Heritage consideration. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

By 2013 all the site condition reports and one for the system were completed. We’re now embarking on the next round, which will incorporate much-needed and cutting-edge assessments of ecosystem services for each site. All sites now have comprehensive science needs assessments to help recruit and guide outside researchers. We’re investing more in the social sciences; two economists are now on staff and in-depth economic studies have been conducted in most sites.

Our Maritime Heritage Program is the single most active maritime heritage program in the federal government, with over 3 billion media impressions on major discoveries and initiatives since 2010. We know that we have at least 4,000 shipwrecks in our sites, areas we propose to expand into, and new sites proposed for sanctuary designation, and have surveyed 400 of those. These include a number of national significant wrecks, an increasing number of which are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

audience members at the gray's reef film festival
Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary hosts a full house at one of its Tuesday Film Series held in a theater in Savannah. From curricula and teachers workshops, to community events and film festivals, to telepresence and virtual dives, the sanctuary system undertakes a full gamut of activities designed to reach and engage the community, and the nation, about sanctuaries and the importance of our ocean. Photo: Chris Hines/NOAA

Our public outreach is more extensive than ever before. We lead NOAA onto new social media platforms, gain media impressions in the billions annually, and just published the second of a new graphics-heavy yearly magazine. Our website enjoys millions of visitors a year. Over 11,000 volunteers, three quarters of whom are citizen scientists, help the system study, protect, and raise awareness about its resources, to the tune of a value of nearly $3.5 million. The system is preparing to expand Team OCEAN and other volunteer programs across the system.

We’re making better use of our non-regulatory authorities such as taking site-based recognition programs like Blue Star in the Florida Keys system-wide. We’re expanding our partnerships outside the ocean community with the corporate, entertainment, and nonprofit sectors, and maturing our Business Advisory Council. We’ll be investing more in empowering and engaging our sanctuary gateway communities.

the papahānaumokuākea advisory council
The advisory council for Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument gathers for a photo after a recent meeting. The sanctuary system places a premium on meaningful public involvement in its management processes and maintains sixteen formal advisory bodies: one for each of the fourteen sites, the Federal Advisory Committee for the MPA Center, and the Business Advisory Council. Photo: Nicole Evans/NOAA

This is not to say that challenges don’t exist. Expanded and new authorities are needed to address new resource issues such as conservation of genetic resources, alternative energy projects, and desalination plants, and to provide increased support to program efforts.

We’ve spent the last four weeks, and four articles, looking at how the sanctuary system started, evolved, and exists today. But our 50th anniversary is on the horizon in 2022, our centennial is in 2072, and our nation and Planet Ocean stand at an ecological tipping point that can make or break our future. What must we be and do to make sure our ocean future is a bright one? Join us next week for Brightwork: The future of the sanctuary system.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.